As Amerika Torres wakes up in her Jester East Residence Hall room and prepares for her online classes, she sends her residents a happy Monday text. “I hope you have an amazing week,” she types.
Behind wooden doors and thin walls, Torres, a public relations junior and on-campus resident assistant, said she does what she can to make her residents smile.
“I really want my residents to feel safe and comfortable living here, especially in these difficult times," Torres said.
Torres, a self-proclaimed people person, said she loves getting to know new people. However, in light of social distancing and University Housing and Dining guidelines, she and other RAs have had to get creative with how they foster community in the residence halls.
Brandon Jones, UT’s associate director for student learning and development, said while dorm life may look different this year, the RAs’ roles are still very much the same.
“Normally, the job of an RA is to focus on building community with residents,” Jones said. “They’d have floor or social meetings … walk to class together … go out and eat together. This year, RAs are still working hard at building community — but from a distance. It’s not impossible. It just looks different and requires more creativity.”
Accounting graduate student Tara Mehta has been an RA since her sophomore year. She said she’s building community in the San Jacinto Residence Hall through Zoom social events, daily GroupMe conversations and shared playlists.
In the past, Mehta would meet her residents by passing them in the halls. This year, interactions have been almost entirely virtual.
“I haven’t really been able to meet with any of them individually except in Zoom breakout rooms,” Mehta said.
Mehta said she has tried to bring her residents together through common interests.
“We’ve made a collaborative Spotify playlist where residents can learn about each other's taste and discover new artists,” Mehta said. “Music is a really good way to bring people together, so we’re using it to try and build these connections. It’s worked out really well so far.”
In addition to creating a comfortable environment, RAs are also responsible for enforcing social distancing, mask-wearing and breaking up gatherings, Jones said.
Torres said while it’s difficult, building a strong relationship with residents is what enables her to enforce UHD guidelines most effectively.
“If you have that rapport with your residents, they know you, they like you and they don't want to go against the rules and hurt your feelings," Torres said.
Jones said students may be more likely to follow UHD COVID-19 guidelines if the enforcer is a peer.
“It’s the RAs’ job to enforce (UHD) policies,” Jones said. “In a normal year, they would still be imposing these guidelines. I actually think that there's an opportunity for an increased or improved relationship there because students listen to students. You learn better from your peers.”