When Global Scholars Hall Resident Advisor Olivia Willis makes her rounds to check on students living on her floor, she is reminded of just how different life is for them compared to when she was a first-year student a couple of years ago.

“I remember we would spend all Sunday evening in the lounge hanging out and doing laundry together, even hosting a pasta party,” Willis said. “We made a ton of spaghetti to share with everyone on our floor and it was a great way to get to know the other students.”

With social distancing restrictions in place, the Covid-19 pandemic has posed unique challenges for Residence Life staff as they work to build a sense of community in the halls. Residents are required to wear masks outside of their rooms, avoid congregating in the hallways and lounges, and until recently, could not invite guests into their rooms.

More students will be living in WSU’s residence halls during spring semester placing an increased importance on making sure they feel connected with each other.

“Everything we are doing is opposite of what we have been trained to do,” said Brandon Brackett, director of residential communities. “We have been planning community building around the idea of keeping people apart, at least physically apart.”

Knowing the importance of community building, especially in these times, Brackett’s team has organized more than 150 community building events and activities this semester. They range from virtual gaming and trivia nights to scavenger hunts and painting sessions.

“Our student staff is very determined to have community and they huddle up (virtually) to talk about ways to make it happen,” said Nichole Goodwin, assistant director of Residence Life and Housing. “Rather than letting barriers stop them, they are digging into it and having conversations about what they can do.”

Feeling a sense of community

In an article titled “A Generation Defined by the Pandemic,” published in October by Inside Higher Education, author Greta Anderson points to a national survey that shows stress, anxiety, and loneliness are the top challenges most students dealt with this semester, and those issues outweighed other stressors such as struggling financially or managing academic workload.

As it turns out, some students were in better position to deal with the stress and anxiety than others. In this month’s edition of Inside Higher Education, Anderson discusses a new survey that shows students who lived on or near campus during fall semester were more likely to have positive learning and social experiences, even if all their classes were online.

The survey, conducted by American Campus Communities, revealed 84% of the participating 42,600 undergraduate students said their social life was the biggest aspect of the college experience they missed during the pandemic. Yet, 71% of the first-year students surveyed said they felt a “sense of community” while living in on-campus or near-campus residences.

Such survey results provide a sense of encouragement to Brackett who credits students on his staff, the Residence Hall Association (RHA), and WSU’s chapter of the National Residence Hall Honorary, for coming-up with new and creative ways to engage residents on the Pullman campus. While they have had varying degrees of success getting students to participate in their community building programs, they plan to remain persistent.

Residence Hall Association Vice President for Communications Nikolai Sublett said the main task heading into next semester is finding out what students are interested in doing together and expanding participation rates.

“It is our priority to do everything we can to help students make the best of the situation and make sure their voices are heard,” Sublett said.

Sublett noticed that following online meetings or programs, students have fun just talking with each other, catching up on each other’s lives. He joked if only he could figure out a way to promote virtual “chatting” sessions in a way that makes them sound exciting and interesting.

A call to action

Eric Glasby, a residential education director in Honors Hall, said lot of students have been expressing sadness about their internships, externships, study abroad, and other opportunities getting canceled.

“While they do feel bad about those things, it has been exciting to see many get more involved locally and give back to our community,” Glasby said. “They are realizing they can make a difference here and are getting out of their individual lanes.”

As students enter the home-stretch of the semester, Willis said stress caused by classes as well as the pandemic is beginning to take a toll on both residents and staff. During Halloween, she helped install a photo booth in her hall’s lounge as a way for everyone to have fun, show-off their costumes and post their pictures on Instagram. The student with the most likes won a Polaroid camera.

Brackett said if there is a silver lining with this pandemic, students and staff are realizing that the work they do with community building is more important than many realized.

Glasby added, “What we have done in the past to build community has always been important, but the current environment revealed the weight of what we do, leading to a call of action.”