Home sweet home: How residence advisors created community during the pandemic

Residence advisor Quinn’s favourite memory from the 2021/22 school year was when she found community through Pokémon.

​“One of my residents is a big Pokémon fan,” said Quinn. “He plays [with] Pokémon cards incessantly and he wants anyone to battle with and I, wouldn’t you know it, have two boxes of Pokémon cards, as well.” Quinn’s name has been changed to protect her job security.

Quinn and her resident talked about the cards for hours and ended up having a Pokémon battle over the weekend. “It was just the sweetest little interaction,” she said.

After a year of online programming, summer 2021 saw the return of in-person events in student residences. While the pandemic forced residence advisors (RA) to reimagine community building, concerns around UBC’s approach to COVID-19 safety in residences led them to unionize after years of discussion.

According to Quinn, issues in first-year residences last year were a significant driver for unionization after it had been a “little whisper that was happening in the RA community” for a long time.

“RAs were not feeling safe in their job and in their community, which is ironic because that’s our job. Our job is to make sure our community feels safe but RAs in first year [residences] couldn’t even feel safe,” Jeff, an RA whose name was changed to protect their job security, told The Ubyssey in April 2021 when RAs unionized.

While the exact terms of the collective agreement are still under discussion, Quinn said she’d like to see the university work with the RAs.

“I think it would be very productive for us to work together to make this space as best as it can be .… if they could just listen to us a little bit more,” said Quinn.

Created community

Working as a residence advisor through the onset of the pandemic, being limited to online programming was difficult for Quinn when trying to build a close-knit community.

“It was truly unfortunate, because people want to find a community, especially in first-year [residence] … you go to a dining hall and you see everyone there and it feels weird to not know everyone who’s at the dining hall with you,” said Quinn.

“Not a lot of people want to be on Zoom when they don’t have to be,” she added. “Sometimes there’s [just] silence and it feels so unnatural and an unnatural way to make a community.”

RAs organized a variety of virtual and hybrid events over the past year, like distanced painting or cooking nights where students participated from their own rooms, as well as community-driven activities such as virtual art exhibitions and online gaming through Discord servers.

“Even at the most restrictive points of the pandemic … our residence advisors have been champions of community building and their creativity to deliver exceptional virtual events has been second to none,” said Andrew Quenneville, associate director of Residence Life. He noted that the RAs sought to fulfill their goal of building community, just as much during the COVID-19 pandemic as they did before.

In The Ubyssey’s housing experience survey, students indicated that they would like to see more events in residence. According to one student who lives in Ponderosa Commons, online events weren’t as engaging as in-person events.

The first in-person event Quinn held in September had a record-high attendance of 53 students.

“[Students] just wanted to be there,” Quinn said, attributing residents’ eagerness to the lack of opportunity to socialize and meet people in the online year. “I gave them a bunch of snacks and … a stack of board games in the middle and then everyone just did their thing and I was like, ‘This is so sweet.’”

Quenneville praised the adaptability of the residence advisors.

“Public health orders have come and gone and those often come with waves of transmission [but] so do the ways that residence advisors deliver events, whether those be in-person or virtually,” said Quenneville.

Waves of transmission

On top of community building, an RA’s job also includes ensuring COVID-19 safety within student residences — but the scope of their responsibilities has changed since the start of the pandemic.

“The first six months to a year, things were changing, [and] I definitely had critiques of how UBC could be better,” said Jesse, a residence advisor whose name has been changed to protect their job security.

The uncertainty around COVID-19 rules in student residences was one of the drivers of the unionization effort. Lack of communication about fall 2020 residence closures and support in enforcing COVID-19 measures were also factors.

Following updates to the RA job requirements, their role includes the review and approval of function responsibility forms, which residents must complete if they want to host an event in their dorm. Optionally, RAs can remind students to wear masks and follow UBC Housing’s COVID-19 policy in residence.

Student Housing and Community Services’ (SHCS) COVID-19 policy follows UBC’s own, as well as guidance from the Public Health Office. 

“I feel a lot more comfortable now than I have in the past,” said Jesse.

Quenneville said that RAs take an “educational approach” when ensuring that students are wearing masks in residential areas.

“The outcomes of the RA position [have] not changed,” said Quenneville, “but rather how RAs meet those outcomes has evolved with the evolving public health orders and direction of the university.”

Besides educational signage, “any resident or staff [member] may politely remind another resident when it appears our rules are not being followed,” wrote Andrew Parr, associate vice-president of SHCS in a statement to The Ubyssey.

Several students asked for more enforcement of COVID-19 rules, including mask-wearing in residences, in The Ubyssey’s housing experience survey.

Quinn said that not having to enforce mask-wearing anymore was a “great relief of pressure for a lot of RAs.” Before this academic year, RAs had to document students not wearing masks — something she described as “pedantic.”

“It just makes us the masking police and it’s not really part of our role,” said Quinn. “Plus it sort of makes residents feel more hostile towards you.”

Parr said that there is “an element of community responsibility” when it comes to enforcing COVID-19 procedures, like mask wearing, in student residence.

“We have asked, and continue to ask, that residents consider others in their actions,” said Parr. “To date, we are very pleased with the fact that the vast majority of residents do in fact follow the guidelines as directed.”

According to Quenneville, RAs are also not responsible for deciding if a student has to self-isolate. Residents who test positive for COVID-19 are required to contact their Residence Life Manager for further steps. The course of action is dependent on the type of unit a resident lives in.

If a student lives in a residence with shared environments or has roommates, they are moved to a designated self-isolation unit either on- or off-campus depending on the number of units available. Students may also choose to isolate off-campus as a personal preference.

Due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, changes in policy are communicated to RAs through email and their weekly team meetings, while residents are updated via email.

“For the most part, everyone follows these restrictions that UBC has put on their residences really well and I appreciate that a lot,” said Quinn.

Survey respondents also asked for more transparency regarding changes in COVID-19 policy, rapid testing and potential exposures in student residences.

“UBC is not in a position to communicate about potential exposures in residence as that is the responsibility of [the] Vancouver Coastal Health [VCH] Authority as doing so would be contrary to Public Health’s guidance,” said Parr. “We will assist [VCH] when requested.”

SHCS is taking an “educational and reasonable approach” to enforcement of COVID-19 policy in residence, said Parr.

“While no system is perfect, we are confident Student Housing is taking reasonable steps to support public health guidelines and Student Housing administration has the tools it requires to deal with exceptional circumstances,” said Parr.

While the future remains unclear, Quinn is looking forward to hosting more in-person events.

“It’s hard to make really deep, good connections online, I’ve found .… I really appreciate and value all of those little moments [with residents] from last term.”