When it comes to living on a college campus, residential assistants (RAs) can be integral to the traditional experience. But in the times of COVID-19, campus life is anything but traditional.

Entering college can be a difficult transitional period and RAs are meant to offer a shoulder for residents to lean on and provide students with perspective from someone who has experienced campus life. Typically, RAs live with underclassmen and mentor them through the process of orientation and settling into dorm life. RAs also benefit from the position. Some said they rely on their job as a means of maintaining financial, housing and food security.

In March, COVID-19 caused many universities to reimagine the college RA experience as students know it.

Students selected as RAs for the 2020-2021 school year felt uncertain about how the fall semester would operate online and that uncertainty has progressed into the academic year.

RAs are now expected to conduct virtual check-ins, be on call for emergencies and offer general support to their residents, according to the guidelines given by Residential Education, the university office in charge of the RA and residential college programs.

“Everything is essentially virtual,” said Jacob Pettis, a senior majoring in media arts and practice. Pettis is now a Virtual Peer Mentor (VPM), a term used to refer to a virtual RA that hosts clusters of 30 students who do not live on campus.

“ResEd is being very flexible with acknowledging these unprecedented times," Pettis said. “They’re learning with us, and we’re all navigating this together."

Makayla Howard, a sophomore majoring in design, said the VPM program was the alternative to regular RAs, created by ResEd just a few weeks before the start of the semester. The program, which meets over Zoom, was offered to most students who had already been selected as RAs for the 2020-2021 school year.

Grant Burlew, interim director of the Office for Residential Education, said ResEd gave RAs different options to ensure they could all make a decision that best fits their circumstances during the pandemic.

“Following Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidelines, we knew there would be RAs who would not meet the requirements set by the city/county to be able to move into USC Housing,” Burlew said. “Signing up to be a Virtual Peer Mentor (VPM) was an additional option for those that still wanted to be involved with our department while remaining at home and make an impact by mentoring first-year students.”

Despite ResEd’s efforts to maintain a strong mentoring program, Pettis said that many RAs struggled to decide among the options provided to them: withdrawing from the position, deferring it until the next semester or becoming a VPM instead of an RA.

Before the pandemic, RAs were provided housing and food plans, which made the position especially desirable for students from low-income backgrounds.

Sofia Reyes, a junior VPM majoring in health promotion and disease prevention, chose to stay home in July, as she lives with people who are immunocompromised. Reyes was given the option to be a VPM three weeks into the semester. However, she said she prefers free housing given to RAs over the monetary compensation offered to VPMs because it would not affect her financial aid.

“I would say every single RA I know has been impacted by the financial aid situation,” Reyes said. “[Being an RA] is their only option to be able to pay for housing and meal plans over the years, so it’s not surprising that we also have a lot of concerns with financial aid.”

Burlew said ResEd created the new hourly student worker position and its compensation to address the majority of VPMs living remotely, which makes the traditional duties of an RA — such as frequent in-person interaction and emergency response — impossible to complete.

“Typically, we support approximately 98% of all first-year students when they live in USC Housing. In order to support these first-year students, we created the VPM position,” Burlew said.

VPMs work a full 20-hour work week remotely, just as an RA would. However, all of the meetings with students take place online, resulting in issues of engagement among the students.

Howard said that out of her 27 students, only two have been responding to her messages and attending the Zoom meetings. This did not surprise Howard.

“If I’m a freshman, and it’s my first year on campus, and someone signs me up for a program that I have literally no idea what it’s about, and I had the option to just go to a Zoom meeting, I don’t think I would go to that Zoom meeting,” she said.

Because VPMs fill a different role than RAs, Burlew said there have been many challenges in executing a program for first-year students at the same success level as in previous years.

“When it came to the VPM position, our biggest challenge was to ensure each VPM felt comfortable engaging with students through Zoom,” Burlew said, adding that additional training and developments focused on how to transform in-person communication skills for the virtual environment.

“Our RAs and VPMs are amazing student leaders that have a passion to make an impact. The success of the virtual clusters is based on the amazing student leaders, staff and faculty we have in Residential Education,” Burlew said.

Many VPMs, including Howard, said they think that the VPM program is a temporary solution but would need reworking if it continued in future semesters.

“Everyone is kind of just shooting bullets in the dark and trying to see what sticks,” Howard said. “I think the intention behind it is good … but in actuality, and to no one’s fault, Zoom is just so hard to sit in front of every day and try to make connections with people.”

Despite the quick transition to an online mentor program, some VPMs are grateful to still have the chance to build a stronger network among USC students.

“I also want to give credit to ResEd, even though [the option of VPM] was given a little late, for wanting to provide students an environment and resources to connect with one another and the larger Trojan community,” Reyes said.