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Empower Residence Life to Drive Wellbeing During COVID-19

Empower Residence Life to Drive Wellbeing During COVID-19

by Tom Matson and Liz Kuncl

Story Highlights

  • Students' return to campus comes with new anxieties amid COVID-19
  • Connect students to their campus community to help them feel engaged
  • Thriving in residence life begins with a focus on wellbeing

Students' arrival on campus is typically filled with a mixture of excitement and anxiety as they separate from their family and friends. Anxiety surpassed depression in 2009 as the No. 1 concern among college students, according to Inside Higher Ed -- and since then, "the number of students experiencing anxiety has steadily increased."

But this year, students' concerns will be different, and residence life leaders in higher education will need to be prepared if they want to help improve students' wellbeing and mental health.

COVID-19 will provide residence life leaders with an opportunity like never before to create the best learning environments. Resident assistants and residence hall directors will serve as the backbone for campus wellbeing while fostering student engagement -- and perhaps will be the single most important touchpoint on campus.

When asked earlier this year about their level of concern regarding potential exposure ("How worried are you that you or someone in your family will be exposed to coronavirus: very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried or not worried at all?"), 66% of 18- to 29-year-olds reported being very or somewhat worried.

In addition, Gallup's June 22-29 polling found 54% of Americans saying they are worried about the lack of social distancing in their local area, the first time this measure has reached the majority level.

Social Distancing and Student Development

Many higher education professionals wonder how social distancing will affect their students' development. Some question whether the phrasing of or thinking behind "social distancing" is even healthy for students to begin with.

Drs. Jane J. Kim and Karestan C. Koenen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health would say it's not.

"We are asking everyone to stop using the term 'social distancing' and replace it with the more accurate 'physical distancing.' To defeat COVID-19, we need physical distance and social solidarity. Social connection is critical to defeat COVID-19 and, as importantly, mitigate the downstream adverse consequences of infection control measures."

Resident assistants and residence hall directors will serve as the backbone for campus wellbeing while fostering student engagement.

Resident assistants and residence hall directors also will have an incredible opportunity to help students create social solidarity -- and by so doing, build resiliency through several student engagement strategies. According to Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson and Michael M. Prinzing, "Research has found that resilient people -- people who handle life's challenges especially well and who quickly bounce back from setbacks -- do not somehow avoid negative states, delusionally thinking everything is fine. Rather, even while feeling stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression, the resilient among us also feel love, gratitude, joy and hope."

As the late Gallup Senior Scientist Dr. Shane J. Lopez said, "Hope is the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so."

Build the Resiliency Your Students Need

  1. Ask purposeful questions that make a difference. Asking broad questions in passing about how students are doing simply won't be enough. Resident assistants will need to persistently ask about their residents' wellbeing. RAs can't assume that students don't want to be bothered with such questions; rather, they should assume there has never been more of a need. By asking and then truly listening, RAs can help students offload some of the anxiety they are feeling today so they can become more engaged students in the future.

  1. Help students make connections to improve their wellbeing. RAs will also have the opportunity to continue to connect students to their campus community, helping them feel engaged and like they're part of something bigger than themselves -- giving them a greater sense of community. Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, reminds university leaders that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, "many young people around the world currently have substantially fewer opportunities to interact face to face with peers in their social network at a time in their lives when this is crucial for their development."

Opportunities to support student development will look and feel different as things like Involvement Fairs and open-door policies change. Residence life leaders need to be equipped as the first line of defense in getting students connected to these kinds of resources despite physical distancing.

Hope is the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so.

  1. Understand students' changing needs and guide them to the right resources. RAs can start by asking direct questions about interests and passions, uncovering students' needs and pointing them toward the appropriate resources. RAs should also know how every club and organization will be communicating and interacting with students, and they should help residents get involved to increase student motivation and wellbeing. Weekly connections -- whether online, over the phone or (physically distanced) in person -- will be vital to creating deep social connections and engaged, thriving campuses.

While many experts focus on the challenges of students' arrival to campus this year, higher education leaders can concentrate on their propensity to embrace the possibilities. Functioning as a community means taking care of each other and creating social solidarity. Students may arrive with more anxiety than usual, but they have the opportunity to leave changed for the better -- and residence life will be right at the center of this transformation.

Improve your campus leadership skills to navigate the new school year through the COVID-19 disruption:


Liz Kuncl is a Senior Education Consultant at Gallup.

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