Yesterday, I began packing my bags to move back to campus next week to serve as a residential assistant (RA). Today, I am canceling my flights and hotel room, reevaluating my fall income, and searching for alternative housing.
On July 29, University President John DeGioia announced that all undergraduate and graduate classes would be virtual for the 2020 fall semester. This change followed a July 6 announcement that approximately 2,000 students would be invited back to campus for the fall semester, including first-year students, certain students with challenging home situations, and a number of RAs to support the on-campus community.
While the majority of RAs were originally invited back to campus as part of the July 6 announcement and expected to move in on August 8 and 9, the security of their fall plans and guaranteed housing disappeared when Residential Living announced that a reduced number of RAs would be granted housing on-campus. A third email, on July 31 announced all RA positions were suspended for the fall semester.
When I heard that no first-year students would be returning to campus, part of me was relieved. A rising number of cases of COVID-19 across the country made me increasingly concerned about how RAs are supposed to single-handedly care for the physical and mental health of their residents while also protecting their own health. Moving fall classes online is undoubtedly the safest decision for public health, and I respect that the administration is working extremely hard to make plans during a health crisis. Yet in making a decision that puts the housing of all RAs in jeopardy, the university must consider the immense impact of its planning on the lives and security of its student workers.
I am enormously lucky. Since the announcement, I have found friends who I can live with. I have found a flat to move into. While the rapid change in my housing situation has been enormously stressful, it does not compromise my long term health, finances, or security. I can’t say the same for many of my fellow RAs.
When Sarah Weber (COL ’23) learned that the university had suspended all RA employment, she was stunned. Her situation was similar to mine—evaporated housing, money lost on a plane ticket that would never be used. The chaos these situations create, Weber feels, is indicative of the university’s disregard for their student employees. While emails have offered platitudes, communication and transparency would have actually lightened the load.
“They mentioned in the email ‘we deeply value the RA position,’ but it feels like they’re treating us as robots, as some kind of workforce that is immune to whatever curveballs they throw at us,” Weber said. “Their inability to respond to student complaints and suggestions really shows a lack of respect.”
In an initial email about the updated fall plan to RAs on July 29, Residential Living announced that they would reduce the number of RA staff for the fall semester, and an upcoming email would announce which RAs would be returning and the criteria used to make those decisions. I expected the majority of us to return, with only about 10 to 15 employees cut, but a following email deferring all RA positions to the next academic year two days later came as a shock.
“It’s just really frustrating that they value us so little. The university literally wouldn’t function without RAs. They should treat us better,” Weber said.
To Ace Frazier (MSB ’23), the limited communication around the university’s decision showed disregard for the university’s student employees. While Frazier originally applied to be an RA both to be a support to first-year students and reduce financial burdens, they admitted that the position was now becoming detrimental to RAs.
“They don’t see us as employees; they see us as students, and therefore they undervalue us. The lack of ability to have a sense of security or feeling that you are actually helping others isn’t there. You feel like you are being used. That’s not what I signed up for. I signed up to be an asset and to try to help others,” Frazier said.
The email to RAs also announced we would be eligible for employment in the spring semester if the university’s reopening plans permit. The loss of RA employment, which factors heavily into financial aid, will result in RA’s aid packages being reevaluated. The email failed to offer housing for RAs, or at least provide resources for RAs to apply for on-campus housing or seek support.
Over the summer, I watched friends make housing plans safe in the knowledge they had weeks to finalize logistics. Had the announcement of the end of the RA position come in early July with DeGioia’s initial hybrid reopening plan, I would have had ample time to find alternative housing options. Now, with less than a week before my flight to D.C., I am condensing months of housing conversations with friends and family into a matter of days.
I do not blame the university for altering plans during an ever-changing crisis. I am not angry that the administration made a decision in the best interest of public health. I am angry they did so without considering the safety of their employees. I am angry that I already expect Georgetown to fail to provide adequate support and options for its student body—in particular student employees laid off with no notice.
When all upperclassmen students were offered the chance to apply for on-campus housing through the Housing Stability Application in July, many RAs were explicitly told by their community directors not to apply, as they would already receive housing through their employment. Now, Residential Living has paradoxically told us only students who applied in July will be reconsidered for on-campus housing—punishing RAs who listened to the only authorities actually communicating with them.
One RA, who wished to remain anonymous and is referred to here as Paul, disregarded his community director’s advice and applied through the Housing Stability Application anyway.
Now, he worries for the many RAs who heeded the advice of their superiors but still vitally require on-campus housing.
“The audacity that they have to tell RAs to not apply for the Housing Stability Application at the beginning of this whole process, and then now—unless they broke the rules like myself and applied anyway—are being punished and not allowed to return to campus regardless of their financial needs, their home life situation, et cetera, is pretty upsetting,” he said.
While upperclassmen RAs may have been unintentionally misled by their community directors, at least they had someone to refer to with questions. As a new RA for a residence hall with a community director vacancy, I have had no one to advise me in my decision to return as an RA, and what to do now that my current housing has expired. Either way, Residential Living is leaving its RAs out to dry.
The lack of care for deferred RAs upset Paul, especially as he felt the university expected an enormous amount of flexibility from them.
Paul, who has a chronic illness, requested a later move-in time so he could finish recovering from a series of medical procedures. This seemed like a reasonable ask, especially as most RA training for the fall was supposed to be virtual. Yet Residential Living was less than accommodating.
“They were upset with me. I had a lot of Residential Living staff be like, ‘You really need to get there. I understand that your health’s important, but we really need to make sure you’re on campus during training,’ despite the fact that it was going to be virtual,” Paul said.
With his health suffering from back-to-back procedures, Paul found it frustrating that the university would offer him no exceptions then turn around and rapidly defer all RA positions with limited options for housing.
He isn’t the only RA who requires on-campus housing for their wellbeing. As I was interviewing Paul, the testimonies of many other RAs in need of on-campus housing flooded my inbox. It quickly became clear the demand for RA housing had grown exponentially due to the end of supposed “guaranteed” housing, particularly in light of Residential Living’s unwillingness to let protocol-following RAs apply to the Housing Stability Application.
One anonymous RA confided about the stress and anxiety the rapid change in plans had caused her.
“Our world is scarce of many things at this time, and one of its most scarce commodities is certainty,” she wrote. “Being an RA gave me sweet certainty. No, things wouldn’t be normal, but I could be certain that I would be in D.C. and be able to help other students and learn new things outside of the classroom and have my independence again and be less in debt. Now? I have none. I have no certainty.”
In hindsight, certainty was a possibility. When the July reopening plan was announced, we were given a choice of returning to campus as RAs, deferring our employment to the next academic year, or resigning. Had I known the chaos my living situation would later be thrown into, I would have easily decided to defer my employment. Now, my job as an RA, something that I believed guaranteed me certainty and stability, has only led to confusion.
Jo Matta (COL ’23) is one RA who does not need to apply for on-campus housing. But she worries particularly for LGBTQ+ students who do not have the same home security she does.
“It leaves me incredibly stressed, especially for friends who might on paper look like they’re doing fine, but they are queer students in homophobic homes,” Matta said. “I’m gay, and I have a lot of compassion for somebody who’s in that situation, because I can’t imagine what I would be doing.”
Matta believes that the university made the correct decision in not bringing first-years to campus given rising cases of COVID-19 and the risks of an outbreak among the student body. As of July 29, eight U.S. states reached their peak number of deaths, and D.C. has a 14-day quarantine required for visitors from 27 states.
“I understand the university’s concern in that increased number in cases as well as the logistical issues that they would face,” Matta said. “But I feel personally that the university has an obligation at the very least to reopen the Housing Stability Application towards RA’s, even RA’s who didn’t previously fill it out who are demonstrating need, because clearly the need is there.”
Some students required on-campus housing regardless of their position as an RA. But now, that need has also extended to RAs with typically more stable living situations, whose housing has fallen out from under them a week before move-in.
Georgetown should not only reopen the housing application to all RAs, but also lower the requirements of what is considered an unstable living situation for a body of students losing their guaranteed housing, promised in an employee contract, a week before they were expected to arrive.
Back in July, I decided not to apply for housing, knowing I would either be an RA or could find another living situation. But now, even under my circumstances, having one week to find another living situation has resulted in constant stress.
There is just not enough time to ensure that RAs have secure and safe living conditions.
While younger RAs expressed frustrated feelings that they were not valued by the university, one student who wished to remain anonymous, known here as George, told a slightly different narrative—one that suggested an ongoing conflict between student employees and the university.
George addressed the history of RA and university relations at Georgetown, including the fact that RAs were not given full meal plans until the 2019-2020 academic year.
“Many RAs faced food insecurity and did not have access to the campus food pantry, as it wasn’t created then. Before 2018-2019, RAs were not given Epicurean meal vouchers to use during holiday breaks, so RAs who were forced to stay on campus during Thanksgiving and Easter had to find their own food,” he explained.
In response, RAs threatened to unionize, similar to the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE), to receive what they believed was adequate care and terms of employment. While the union was never formed, Residential Living provided RAs with approximately $500 of extra flex dollars during the semester, George explained. Despite their increased spending power at Vittles, major concerns about RA mismanagement still remained.
“RAs can be fired at will and have their employment, housing, and benefits taken from them for minor offenses,” George elaborated.
He also explained how COVID-19 had increased tensions between RAs and Residential Living staff. In the spring semester, as Georgetown transitioned to online learning, RAs were unable to answer residents’ questions and had no information on what their roles were expected to be or if they would receive compensation for their on-campus jobs after returning home.
It is ridiculous that university employers are given less than two weeks notice that their jobs are dissolved, especially when compensation involves an entire year’s guaranteed housing and food.
These concerns about unfair working conditions may appear new to the student body. That’s not because they are new, but because RAs have been scared to speak out. In the past, RAs have been threatened with termination or suspension for publicly discussing their roles as employees.
For me, even writing this article about the treatment of RAs has made me anxious. I do not know what repercussions other RAs and I might face for criticizing Residential Living.
In our student contracts, we sign a confidentiality agreement. Yet, those same contracts also promise us housing, which has now been taken away from us. We must be able to communicate with the university clearly and openly without fearing for the security of our employment or future housing.
As soon as it was announced that the majority of first-year students, and therefore some RAs, would not be granted on-campus housing, GUSA representatives and individual RAs began to advocate on behalf of the student employees. In a letter to administration, students called for the university to reopen the Housing Stability Application to offer RAs another chance to apply for housing and to reimburse financial losses on travel to Georgetown.
Daniella Sanchez (COL ’22), GUSA Senate Speaker, argued for housing promised not just to students, but students employed by the university.
“We realized that immediate action needed to be taken to ensure these RAs were taken care of because they are employees of the university but they’re honestly not being treated as such,” Sanchez said.
In an email to the Voice, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson explained RAs would be able to defer their position to the next academic year as long as they maintained eligibility.
“As part of our efforts to reduce density on campus while responding to challenging public health conditions, we have determined the best course of action is to utilize live-in, professional staff members to provide support to the smaller number of students who will live on campus this fall,” Olson wrote. “We deeply value the contributions of our Resident Assistants and look forward to working with them when public health conditions allow for the return of more students to campus.”
Frazier argues that granting RAs housing, or at least re-opening the application for RAs, is the only appropriate response from the university. According to Frazier, Georgetown has enough dorm space across campus to safely accommodate students granted housing through the stability application, as well as RAs already promised housing earlier this summer.
“You have left them high and dry. It’s your job at that point to care for that person,” Frazier said. “Especially at an institution that prides themselves on caring for the whole person.”
I appreciate calls for compensation and refunds for RAs. I have little expectation that the university will agree to such a demand. Housing, on the other hand, is a form of compensation that the university can and must offer. In our employee contracts, we sign onto our duties as RAs and agree to follow a number of stipulations by the university. In response, we are promised adequate compensation through free room and board.
Our contracts are already signed. Changing health conditions or not, Georgetown has a responsibility to fulfill its contractual agreements and grant RAs who need it the housing they have been promised. We are, at the end of the day, employees. Refusing to communicate with us, grant agreed-upon housing, or offer us adequate notice of our temporary termination is a violation of our rights as student workers.
This article has been updated to ensure the anonymity of one testimony.