Third-year College students Mj Smith and Jayla Hart accepted offers to serve as resident staff co-chairs for the 2021-22 academic year on Feb 23. The positions — which they will hold until May 2022 — include responsibilities such as leading Housing and Residence Life senior staff training meetings, reviewing applications for and managing a team of 240 staffers and providing recommendations for changes to Housing and Residence Life’s mission and policies. HRL provides on-Grounds housing for approximately 7,000 students, ranging from first-years living in dorms to upperclassmen in apartment-style housing.
In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Smith said that at first he didn’t even consider applying for the co-chair position. However, at the urging of friends and other staffers of HRL, he realized the role was a chance for him to make a difference in the program and get to know all of his fellow staffers.
After serving on HRL’s Committee on Multi-Culturalism for the last two years, Hart knew she loved acting as a leader and a coach in her own way to help staffers understand what concepts such as diversity, equity and inclusion actually look like when it comes to providing a home for all residents. The committee’s mission is to provide tools to RAs to confront issues in their community and build connections between diverse groups and HRL staff.
“I think that desire to spread that feeling of home across the program in an equitable way was really the motivating cause for me applying because at HRL I had noticed how much growth we had made in the last two years,” Hart said. “I really felt that this was a good time to start pushing for even more bold initiatives, things that would show that HRL is adapting with the student body and the needs of our residents and staffers.”
For the coming year, Hart and Smith are using their positions to reorganize one HRL committee, dedicating it to addressing “Community Development and Residential Inclusion” instead of simply Community Development.
“We really do kind of set the tone for the program, and we can leverage our authority so that we can change a position like we're doing this year,” Hart said. “This [change] was really meant to take a past Vice-Chair position and make it more tailored towards diversity, equity and inclusion, and initiatives that help to shift the direction of what we're doing as a co-chair.”
Hart and Smith both believe that complete transparency and open communication lines will make HRL an increasingly accessible and inclusive community for students and staffers. They are already planning to increase transparency and boost camaraderie by creating a lunch series for everyone in the program and sitting in on staffing meetings.
“I aspire to know everyone in the program, which I know is a big task, but I believe this will allow for staffers to feel seen and heard within the program,” Smith wrote. “Having a diverse group of staffers and leaders allows for more diverse stories and experiences to help HRL grow and best serve the needs of the varying staffers and residents that we serve and will continue to serve throughout the year.”
HRL co-chairs are required to serve as either a resident advisor for two years or a senior resident for one year. Hart, who lived in Brown College her first year, was a RA for one year in Brown before she was selected as the residence’s senior resident. Smith has served as an RA for the last two years in Bice House and the Language Houses.
Hart and Smith were selected after completing both a written application and two rounds of interviews. This year, the interview process was virtual, and for the first time, a group of RAs were able to sit in on the first interview. The second interview was just with professional staff, including Dean of Students Allen Groves and Associate Dean of Students Andy Petters.
“The interview process itself, it did happen virtually this year over Zoom,” Hart said. “While it was a bit interesting doing that for the first time, I think that we really were intentional about including all the voices within the program so that our co-chairs really were two people that were able to speak the best interest of everyone, not just a small group of people.”
Hart and Smith will spend this semester attending onboarding meetings, senior staff training sessions and all-staff orientation. Once a week, they will also meet with other SRs and the four vice-chairs of HRL. This ensures that Hart and Smith are able to gather concerns from all levels of staff and voice the concerns to HRL’s professional staff if needed.
The co-chairs are also responsible for making actionable changes when concerns are brought to them, and Smith and Hart have already gotten to work expanding one of the staffing positions.
Serving as an RA or SR looks very different this year than in past years because of COVID-19 and the necessary policy changes HRL has made regarding the roles and responsibilities of staffers.
The changes aim to “ultimately keep our staffers and residents as safe as possible,” according to the current resident staff co-chairs, fourth-year College student Ja’Mel Reed and fourth-year Engineering student Anna Winter.
“Some of the traditional roles of the RA revolve around coverage, hosting programming, building community and being a mentor, friend and/or support system for residents depending on association,” Reed and Winter said in a joint email to The Cavalier Daily. “[These roles] have changed and remain ever changing in order to adhere to the advisory given by the health system and VDOH.”
This year, RAs have served as the first line of support for first years during the pandemic and have had to enforce the new COVID-19 guidelines — including gathering limits, masking guidelines and social distancing — in addition to hosting programming virtually.
In September, many RAs anonymously published a list of demands in light of their changing roles, including hazard pay, increased personal protection equipment and co-chair accountability in the form of a democratic election rather than appointment.
“We saw with the HRL demands this past year and all the smaller moments of calling for change, and I think we’re trying to understand what that change is going to be within HRL,” Hart said. “It’s how will I, as a co-chair, work with MJ [and the rest of our staff] to come to a consensus on what we want HRL to be. And I think that that's going to take a lot of conversation, a lot of collaborative work.”
Hart and Smith acknowledged that the role will certainly come with challenges, namely navigating training 240 new staffers virtually over the summer and increasing the diversity and inclusion of the HRL program. However, both Hart and Smith are staying optimistic and preemptively planning how to face their coming uphill battles.
“Alongside the uncertainty of the current pandemic, me and Jayla have had many discussions on the importance of equity and inclusion and have begun work to ensure that these are one of the main focuses into the upcoming year,” Smith said. “I know that this is a difficult time where many things are up in the air, but I am confident in our team that we will be prepared for any issue that may arise.”
Hart hopes to make clear that HRL is a constantly evolving program looking to make both notable and small improvements. Hart and Smith are looking for student and staff input into ways to improve the resident experience and forge a more inclusive program.
If a community member has a suggestion or concern that can be addressed by Housing and Residence Life, Hart asks that they reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.