Student Housing counselor-in-residence approved in budget but paused amid pandemic

Student Housing counselor-in-residence approved in budget but paused amid pandemic

Photo Credits: AGGIE FILE

Current, former student employees still express concerns about communication, mental health support

Five current and former Student Housing employees spoke to The Aggie. Employee A, Employee B and Employee C spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves and their employment. Employee D and Employee E are former student staff of Student Housing who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize professional relationships. 

Students can schedule individual counseling from the SHCS by calling them at 1(530)752-0871. 

The number for the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1(800)273-8255; the number for the 24/7 Crisis Text Line is 741741; the number to speak with a trained counselor through The Trevor Project, available 24/7, is 1(866)488-7386 and the number for Yolo County’s 24-hour crisis line is 1(530)756-5000 for Davis callers.

With cancellations of housing contracts and reduced density of residence halls, Student Housing and Dining Services lost $22 million at the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year and anticipates losing the same amount in Fall Quarter 2020, according to Director of Business and Financial Services Ramona Hernandez. 

Student Housing and Dining Services’ budget has been especially affected by COVID-19 and students canceling their housing contracts because it is an auxiliary operation that “count[s] on student room and board costs for [its] entire budget,” said Director of the Office of Student Development Branden Petitt.

In light of the reduced density, Petitt said that Student Housing had to reevaluate the number of positions—the model they use has one resident advisor (RA) or community advisor (CA) for every 50 residents. An email sent on Aug. 6 stated that they would “need to reduce the team by an unknown number but likely by around 50%,” sparking concern and a Change.org petition on the same day. 

On Aug. 7, Petitt sent a follow-up email, apologizing for the “confusion and worry” the communication had caused. On Aug. 14, a staff meeting was held to clarify that those who needed room and board were still guaranteed it. After that meeting, Petitt said that he heard from students who were appreciative of the flexibility. But others expressed concerns around the vagueness of their role.

“I think there has been more clarity in what next year will look like, but there are still so many questions that I don’t think will be completely answered until we actually begin our position,” Employee A said. “It’s hard to predict what next year will entail […] All of the uncertainty is definitely stressful, but I am just glad Student Housing will not be cutting anybody from the job.”

In an interview on Aug. 17, Petitt stated that he had not seen the petition and said that the decision to provide room and board was never in question, but he understands how students came to that conclusion. 

He also said that 20% of residential student staff had already resigned and added that the 50% referenced in the email came from the number of students that were registered to live on campus. Other considerations that factored into Student Housing and Dining Services’ decisions include needing to sufficiently support living-learning and shared-interest communities, which could result in the CA number remaining the same or higher than 50%. 

The CA and After Hours Assistant (AHA) positions are new for the 2020-21 year. They were introduced to provide more structure and divide the responsibilities RAs previously held. CAs can concentrate on their floors while AHAs will handle rounds and similar duties. 

Regardless of how many individuals are needed as CAs, all student staff offered positions guaranteeing room and board will be housed so long as they continue to work 19.5 hours a week.

“We’re guaranteeing that they’ll have their room and board and will be assigned work that’s within the scope of their current position,” Petitt said, explaining that the assigned work will likely be desk shifts, helping at computer centers, being an Aggie public health ambassador or mail clerk.

Student staff say miscommunication is part of a longstanding pattern

According to all five Student Housing employees The Aggie spoke to, this incident speaks to a pattern of poor communication and student staff feeling that they are not sufficiently supported. 

“In different times, the communication has been, unless you’re personally going out to them [Student Housing], very limited,” Employee C said. “I feel like that was the case just throughout.”

With regard to such concerns, Petitt said that often he is “at the mercy of getting the information” himself, but acknowledged that there could be ways to improve communication.

“I totally get that people want information, and they want it right away, and I will certainly provide it when I can,” Petitt said. “Now, in all fairness, maybe that’s the email that goes out: ‘I don’t have the information, and I will get it to you as soon as I can, please hang in there.’ You know, maybe just more of that recognizing and empathizing with the situation.”

Employee E, who was an RA for a year and then an assistant resident director, agreed with Employee C and spoke to feelings that stemmed from a lack of communication. 

“I think when it comes down to it, student staff is very unprioritized,” Employee E said. “We’re expected to kind of just do whatever needs to be done for students, even though we are students ourselves. I just feel like that bleeds into their crises responses.” 

Employee D echoed this sentiment, adding that she feels student staff are not prioritized as individuals. 

“I don’t want to say they don’t care about us, because there is a sense of wanting us to be comfortable and in a good state of mind,” Employee D said. “But there’s just no follow through. It’s a lot of words and not a lot of action. That’s just been my experience.”

All five employees also expressed, to varying degrees, that they have been told to be careful about what they tell their supervisors. Both Employee B and Employee E said that they and other student staff they knew felt “replaceable,” which compounded concerns of speaking to supervisors—particularly about mental health. 

“What if my mental health isn’t the greatest and they take it as, ‘Oh, I don’t trust you to do a good job,’” Employee B said. “I felt like the only people I can really talk to are other RAs, but they don’t need that either because they’re already going through their own stuff, they’re struggling themselves.”

In response to this, Petitt said that if there are any concerns or “a general discomfort,” staff members should reach out to other on-campus resources such as the Ombuds Office or the Harassment & Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program, and emphasized that Student Housing follows university policy and protocol to ensure student staff feels supported. 

“I would say that, in my heart, any of our staff members and people who supervise our students provide any help they may need,” Petitt said. “The problem I’m having right now is I can’t help solve the problem if I’m not aware of it.”

But some student employees feel that more proactivity is necessary, including Employee D. In her first year as an RA, a resident on her floor attempted suicide. She followed protocol, which included submitting an incident report and contacting her resident director, but said that she received “absolutely no follow-up from Student Housing.”

“I feel like in these instances, where it’s pretty obvious that an emotional toll has been taken on the RA, Student Housing should act faster and take the initiative to reach out first,” Employee D said. 

Employee D added that it depends on the person—while she said that she had the support of her own supervisor as well as other RAs and friends to talk to, she knows that some of her colleagues do not have the same support system and want more action from Student Housing. 

RAs give mental health support, but say they don’t receive it

In their role, RAs and CAs act as support for their residents. In training, they are told to talk to any resident who approaches them with mental health concerns and then refer them to Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS), according to Employee A. 

In his experience, however, it often takes a while for residents to get an appointment with SHCS, during which time residents continue to use their RA as a resource.

“For the resident advisors, it’s not really a choice that we get, because it’s either that we hear them out or we don’t hear them out,” Employee A said. “There’s really no other good alternative.”

Employee A said that he has never felt the need to reach out for support personally. He said he felt sure that if he reached out, he would be able to get resources, but added that he knows others who have reached out for support and have not been satisfied with what was provided.

In the past few years, RAs have worked as a unit to express their concerns to supervisors and full-time staff of Student Housing through a group called RA Advocacy. According to Employee C, who held a leadership role in RA Advocacy, the group has biweekly meetings, after which the heads of the group speak with a representative from Student Housing. 

RA Advocacy has been met with support on some concerns; for example, nightly logs were required but were axed after RAs expressed that the logs made interactions with residents too transactional. But Employee C felt that “more major” issues that were brought up were not met with the same support.

“It definitely felt in my first year [as an RA], they were more receptive and actually had concrete things moving forward,” Employee C said. “But it felt like when there were more major issues—those were the issues where they just said, ‘We hear you,’ but they didn’t actually make a change.”

He said the two most major issues were the demonstrated need for mental health advocates for Student Housing and the current employees’ opinion that they should be involved in the student staff hiring process.

Employee C said that in conversations with Student Housing administrators about mental health advocacy, he was told that they would see what they could do, but there were budgetary limitations and other considerations. 

He added that after those discussions, though, RAs were provided access to an online mental health service for a number of free visits and a 24/7 chat functionality.

“Especially if people need an in-person one-on-one experience, it was nowhere near what would be required,” Employee C said. “But at the very least, it was some sort of effort [within] their constraints.”

 In response to these concerns and demands for increased mental health advocacy, Student Housing worked with SHCS to introduce a counselor-in-residence position. Although the position was approved for the 2020-21 budget, it has been placed on pause in light of the COVID-19 related losses, according to Petitt. 

“I definitely empathize and sympathize that there’s someone who needs that help,” Petitt said. “But I do think that help is there with Student Health and Counseling Services for Fall Quarter and beyond.”

While glad that the position has been approved, Employee A expressed some disappointment that the position was paused at a time when “residents will need emotional help more than ever.”  

“There’s been a lot to process this year, with COVID, social distancing, the current political climate of our country, natural disasters and more,” Employee A said. “All of this on top of academic work and the transition into college might result in residents needing more assistance than I am capable of giving.”

Employee D expressed how necessary the position is for student staff. She was somewhat surprised that the position was approved and that the approval hadn’t been communicated more to student staff.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have supervisors who were really supportive of my mental health and my wellbeing, and this past quarter, my [resident director] would always check in with me and all of our staff members, but I know that that’s not the case for a lot of people,” Employee D said. “I think that having a counselor on-site would have been useful, and I honestly had no idea that it was even approved.”

Written by: Anjini Venugopal — campus@theaggie.org