In any year, Tufts’ resident assistants wear many hats. They are students, peers and employees, tasked with creating safe, accessible and enjoyable residential life. But during the pandemic, RAs have shouldered the additional burden of balancing typical dorm life with the maintenance of a safe and healthy student body. With every policy change, it is RAs whose labor goes into finding that balance, a process that often involves putting themselves in uncomfortable and dangerous situations at the expense of their mental and physical health. RAs represent some of the best of the Tufts community, and given the additional burdens presented by the pandemic, it is imperative that Tufts listen to their voices and be more responsive to their needs.
One common struggle, among the myriad that RAs have faced this year, has been social isolation. In the fall, RAs were unique among students on campus in that they were typically considered “cohorts of one” rather than members of larger residential cohorts like most students; the end of the cohort system before the spring semester, however, did not spell the end of the social toll that comes with being an RA during a pandemic.
“The cohort system has been discontinued, but we’re still so incredibly isolated,” Katherine Powers, an RA and a junior, told the Daily. “It’s really difficult to find social connection, and … that’s been really hard on a lot of us.”
This social isolation accompanies a plethora of professional challenges brought on by the pandemic. Without compensation for this additional work, many RAs have become frustrated and decided either to not continue next year or to go even further and quit early.
“They do tell you that it can be 10 to 15 hours every week when you apply,” Florence Grenon, a former RA, said. “And in reality, it was not 10 to 15 hours, it was almost, like, every hour of every day.”
Grenon, a sophomore, made the decision that she couldn’t continue being an RA while she was still just partway through her first semester in the role. Despite her desire to give back to the community, the hours and the pressure of being an RA during a pandemic were just too much.
“Personally, I knew it was affecting my mental health a lot,” she said. “I wanted to be better for other people, but I also have to take care of myself first.”
In addition to mental health, some RAs have felt worried about their physical health, given their responsibility of enforcing virus safety rules among students. Zach Woods, an RA in Harleston Hall, added that the university does not notify RAs when residents under their watch test positive or enter quarantine.
“As an immunocompromised person, that’s sort of really concerning,” Woods, a junior, said. “It’s gotten to a point where, if someone tests positive, because the university won’t tell anyone, people will literally put a sticky note in the bathroom that’s like, ‘We’re in contact quarantine,’ or ‘One of us who uses this bathroom tested positive.’”
The Office of Residential Life and Learning previously resisted RAs’ calls for greater communication in these situations, claiming that its hands are tied by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Yet Tufts sends professors a notification when one of their students is no longer able to participate in classes in person — it should at least be able to do the same for those students’ RAs.
RAs, of course, do not deserve just transparent communication, but also generous financial compensation for the duties they perform on the university’s behalf. Unfortunately, the university’s mere provision of housing is short of what RAs’ labor warrants.
“As a low-income student, I still have to work … I think, like, 20 hours a week outside of being an RA, just to make extra money. Whereas if I would have had extra compensation, I may not have had to put myself at the extra risk,” Woods said. “When we are worrying about money for ourselves, it takes away from the energy that we could be devoting to our residents.”
Multiple RAs testified to the Daily that even just a meal plan would have helped — something that used to be one of the benefits given to first-year advisors, but was removed when the position was replaced with that of RAs. Either through meal plans or through cash, it is important that the university rectify the position in which it has put RAs.
Beyond direct compensation, Tufts must also facilitate regular communication and consultation between RAs and the Office of Residential Life and Learning staff. The university took a positive step in this direction when it agreed to develop an RA Council for next year, which will give RAs a platform to formally voice their concerns to the administration and weigh in on the appropriateness of policies they are asked to enforce. But to show that it is sincere in this effort, it matters that the university actually listen and make policy changes when the council recommends them.
Relatedly, while the administration handles the disciplinary side of breaches of COVID-19 campus policy, it still calls upon RAs to enforce and report them. Because of this, it is imperative that the university be transparent about its disciplinary rules, so that both RAs and their residents are fully aware of the sequence of events that follow a violation. The current system leaves RAs hesitant to enforce virus safety measures, not knowing with any certainty what consequences a resident will face if reported.
Finally, it remains important that the university hold to the commitments it already has made to RAs. Most notably, this includes the university’s commitment to greater anti-racist training, which was only a small part of this year’s two-week RA training. In response to the egregious acts of racist violence that we have witnessed over the past year, the university must give RAs the opportunity to formally acknowledge and unlearn implicit biases under the guidance of professionals so that they are in the best position to support their residents throughout the academic year.
RAs deserve better than the experience Tufts gave them this year. They are stewards of the Tufts community, people who make this campus safe and welcoming to all who reside here. When they speak, the university should show that it is listening.