By Eric Weir
Just before noon on Saturday, Aug. 21, a residential advisor wakes up on the third floor of Avery Residence Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. He reaches for his phone after rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. The phone lights up with countless messages from a residential advisor staff group chat. He unlocks his phone and the messages relay the same key words: cluster, COVID-19, Avery Residence Hall.
Jose Rodriguez Gomez opens up his laptop to see the email regarding a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Avery and a mandate requiring every Avery resident get tested for the virus.
Gomez gets dressed as he tries to process what comes next while still half asleep.
“I was pretty sure I was safe and I think the part I was most worried about was mainly for the safety of my residents,” he said.
While clusters were always a possibility with a full campus of students, many were fearing a repeat of the previous year. Students had been sent home weeks into the fall semester due to several clusters on campus.
Later that day, several of Gomez’s residents asked him if everyone was going to be sent home again and if the dorms would close.
Gomez said that he did not know.
A new semester, same pandemic
As UNC-CH reopens its campus to full in-person activities, several problems from the previous year have returned. Many students are navigating the mobs of students in the Pit for the first time, while some are still using maps to find Davis Library.
Some resident advisors are dealing with these issues just like regular students. On top of that, they must keep the community safe by enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols, build an atmosphere of trust among all residents, and dedicate hours at night to be ready at the ring of a phone to assist if someone needs help.
Bonds bring hope
Despite this, the RAs of the Carmichael and Parker neighborhood believe they have experienced relative success because the staff have become close friends.
The Parker and Carmichael neighborhood is situated along Stadium drive and consists of Avery, Carmichael, Parker, and Teague residence halls. The four dorms can hold up to a total of 1,051 students according to the Carolina Housing website. This semester, there are 19 RAs in the community.
Gomez was interested in becoming an RA since he transferred to UNC-CH as a junior in 2020. After sitting down with his previous RA to ask about the time allotment, stress, and experiences that come along with the job, he knew he would be an RA this year.
Under the sweltering heat of the late July sun, RAs began reporting for training. For Bassem Elbitar, it was his first steps on campus as a student. The sophomore was able to converse with fellow students without to pressing unmute.
For a week and a half, Elbitar socialized while the campus was still quiet. He learned that most of the RAs in the community were first-time RAs like him. He also met other RAs including Olivia Mwangi, his partner on the third floor of Carmichael.
Mwangi, Gomez, Elbitar, and the rest of the staff found themselves coordinating more than floor programs. Mwangi said that many RAs get dinner together regularly and meet up to go to every home soccer game. It is common to walk by the community desk in Carmichael and see three or four people behind the desk when two are scheduled to work at the desk at a time.
“It’s so weird, I’ve learned that this is not like the same environment in other like residential communities,” said Mwangi, “but we all hang out pretty much every day.”
A separate group chat for more friendly conversations was created and named “Chicken Parmichael,” according to Olivia. The name originated from RA training where during roll call, the RAs from the Parker and Carmichael neighborhood noticed the other community had a chant. The community of RAs huddled together and began to slap together a chant.
A furious debate took place before, within a few seconds, an RA said, “Let’s go Chicken Parmichael.” This was followed by a wave of laughter and agreement. When called, the Parker and Carmichael neighborhood shouted, “Chicken Parmichael!” followed by several chuckles.
Finding solutions together
One of the duties as an RA happens during the night. From 8 p.m. to 9 a.m., two RAs are ready for calls on the dorm hotline and walking rounds in each building.
This can sometimes be inconvenient and tiresome.
“I was on duty this Tuesday and had an exam on Wednesday,” said Gomez, “so I had to balance studying for my exam on Wednesday and staying up late to do my shift.”
The RAs have been able to balance this by relying on each other for help.
On Tuesday Aug. 21, Mwangi rolled out of bed with a fever after a restless night. She sweated through two midterms and a three-hour lab before returning to Carmichael and dreading her shift at the community desk that night.
Mwangi had taken this shift from another RA so they could study for an exam they had on Wednesday.
Mwangi texted some RAs to ask if someone who could take her shift because she was ready to pass out.
Gomez responded and stepped in to cover for Mwangi, even though he had an exam the next day. He insisted that he take the shift so Mwangi could get some rest.
The next day, Mwangi was at the community desk laughing over bad jokes when she received a text informing her that a resident was dealing with a mental health issue.
Elbitar and Mwangi responded to the incident and mentioned the resident struggling with mental health, but no specifics were given. RAs are required to keep any personal information about their residents confidential.
Mwangi panicked and started crying. She struggled to calm down and focus on the next steps.
“In a situation like this, we’re trained for it,” said Mwangi, “but once it happens you never really know how to react.”
Veteran RA Fabryce Joseph began calming Mwangi down. Joseph reassured Mwangi and walked her through what she needed to do, who she needed to call, and how to inform the RA who was on duty.
With help from her staff members, Olivia was able to assist the distressed resident.
On that Friday, the RA staff were able to go get dinner as friends, knowing they would be able to deal with whatever problem that came their way.
Edited by Eva Hagan