LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 3, 2021) — Resident advisors (RAs) fulfill multiple vital roles on a college campus: they mentor students, foster a feeling of community and belonging, serve as a primary resource for questions and concerns, and help students navigate new territory.
As both students and employees, they balance their own academic and personal responsibilities while simultaneously being on-call at a moment’s notice.
In March 2020, when University of Kentucky students expected to return from Spring Break to their residence halls on campus, RAs dropped everything to help ensure a safe and speedy move-out in record time.
One year after, second-year Lewis Hall RA Deborah Myers says she will not soon forget what it was like on campus in March 2020.
“Answering the phone and hearing that residence halls were closed for the semester was surreal. Since everyone scheduled move-out appointments at different times to avoid contamination, I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to my residents,” Myers shared. “Even though we stayed in contact virtually, the transition from a campus life community to moving back home was an unavoidable shock. I’m grateful for the virtual counseling resources UK and Residence Life provided to support residents during that uncertain time.”
COVID-19 has undeniably impacted campus life at UK, pushing students and faculty alike to get creative with their approach to learning and campus life. The 2020-21 academic year saw a change in course modality, campus life and student interaction. Resident advisors were tasked with a unique mission — transform the role to include COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines, while maintaining the hallmark facets of the job.
Resident advisors needed to re-design the way they interact with the students they are mentoring. How they did that differed from residence hall to residence hall. Many met with students outdoors when possible and utilized platforms like Zoom and GroupMe consistently to help them feel more connected.
Molly Merchant, a sophomore double-majoring in community leadership development and secondary social studies education and minoring in psychology, is rounding out her first year as an RA in Woodland Glen IV.
“As a first year RA during a global pandemic, I think Residence Life has done a great job at handling the circumstances that have come at them,” Merchant said. “They have provided us with PPE, ways to build community with our residents and shown us ways to battle against unprecedented situations.”
"Monthly, I meet one-on-one with each of my residents to talk about how they’re doing and possible areas of growth," she said. "I try to make the extra effort to be there for them, reaching out through a text or sending GroupMe messages to make myself more accessible."
Myers and Merchant each manage 22 students this academic year. One of the most difficult aspects of the job has been monitoring students’ adherence to hall policies in connection with COVID-19, according to Merchant.
Myers understands the journey many first-year students experience adjusting to a campus environment and geared her pandemic-friendly programming toward ensuring students felt at home.
“The transition to college can be challenging. Personally, I struggled at first to connect on campus and find a community where I belonged,” Myers said. “For me, serving as a resident advisor is a platform to help residents find their home within our university. I have found purpose through mentoring my residents and providing them with resources to excel at UK.”
One of the things that Merchant has focused on is the shared connection and experiences of her fellow Wildcats.
“During this abnormal time, I have made sure to keep a positive attitude about the circumstances we were under,” she said. “COVID-19 has impacted everyone, and we are all in this together.”
Residence Life staff worked closely with RAs to ensure interpersonal interactions and community building opportunities remained at the heart of their efforts.
“RAs were adaptive and innovative. They also found creative ways to engage students through programming and events that complied with safety guidelines and completed nearly the same number of events as in prior years. And, in the midst of it all, RAs still collectively logged more than 12,000 mentoring conversations with students during their CATS-UP sessions (Caring, Academic Success, Time Management, Social Wellness - Unique Plan),” shared Justin Blevins, acting director of Residence Life. “I couldn't be prouder of how staff supported and cared for each other and our residents during this time.”
Planning for her third and final year as an RA this upcoming fall, Myers is grateful for the perspective gained during the pandemic.
“Throughout the ups and downs COVID has presented, I gained true perspective on the value of community,” Myers said. “Although COVID has changed the way we do things, the overarching purpose of Residence Life remains unchanged.”
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.