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Wash U's Resident Advisors Say They've Been Left In The Lurch After Campus Closure

Two students walk down the long stairwell in front of Brookings Administration Building at Washington University in St. Louis. (photo taken March 19, 2020)
File photo / Bill Greenblatt
Washington University residential advisors want the school to compensate them after they lost their free housing when the campus closed in March.

Washington University’s residential advisors want financial compensation after being “randomly evicted” over email while scattered across the country for spring break.

With college campuses closed around the nation and students finishing up the semester from childhood bedrooms, older students enlisted as resident advisors are no longer needed to chaperone freshman dormitories.

But those advisors say that doesn’t mean the work stopped the day the campuses closed down in mid-March. The younger students the advisors watch over started calling and texting almost immediately, two Wash U students who were advisors said, with questions such as how to get essential items left in their dorms. 

“I'm not going to ignore those people when they reach out to me, and I'm going to check in on them because I care about them,” said Jada Gardner, a junior advisor currently holed up at home in Minneapolis.

The university argues there are no lost wages to replace because the students are only compensated with housing and meal credits, which they’re no longer using as they’re not on campus. The university said in a statement that any outstanding bills for room and board have been forgiven and that it is providing financial assistance to all students through a special fund.

“One of our highest priorities throughout this time has been and continues to be to support our highest financial need students as much as possible through this unprecedented situation,” a statement issued by a university spokesperson reads. “Our Residential Advisors are incredibly valuable members of our community and we have taken steps to ensure that, like all students, those with financial need have access to assistance.”

Residential advisors, known as “RAs” on college campuses, receive free housing and meal plans in exchange for living in underclassmen dorms and tending to everything from breaking up late-night parties to offering a shoulder to cry on after long-distance breakups.

They’re driven to the role, they said, because it’s a chance to give back and help out a future generation of students. But with the sticker price of attending Wash U being more than $74,000 a year, free housing and food is a big draw, too.

“I'm not going to lie, like, that did play a role for me,” Gardner, 20, said. “I wanted to do it anyway, but also, housing is expensive.”

The RAs are ineligible for unemployment benefits, and many also do not qualify directly for the stimulus checks the federal government is sending out. The roughly 130 RAs at Wash U want what they say peers at other colleges, including St. Louis University, got when their services were rendered unneeded: $750 as an emergency grant. 

“We believe that is a reasonable yet effective request for the university to fulfill,” said Joel Anderson, a senior and second-year RA.

Wash U’s main campus has spent $25 million reimbursing students for unused portions of meal and housing plans, as well as mailing essential belongings back to their homes. It’s been allotted $6.4 million in federal pandemic relief.

The RAs are circulating a petition asking the university for additional support. More than 1,600 people have signed it. They’ve also had one virtual meeting with residential life officials that left them wanting, they said. Anderson and Gardner said the communications from the university have been at several times cold and confusing.

“The system has been very unclear,” Gardner said. “And it's sort of inner mechanisms and how decisions get made and also, unfortunately, really ineffective for a lot of students who really need it.”

Wash U, for its part, said it’s disappointed with how the academic year is coming to an end, but that it’s “grateful for the leadership and role that our RAs fulfilled this year. We will continue to provide support to all of our students during this difficult time.”

Gardner is wrapping up her junior year and excited to return to campus in the fall. Despite her love for the role and the financial benefits, she’s unsure about being an RA again.

“It is one of the most fulfilling parts of my Wash U experience,” she said. “But it's also really hard to work a job when you have no relationship, really, of trust with your employers anymore and you feel not supported by them and not valued by them.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect what Washington University has spent and received in aid. 

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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