Marjorie Serrano, 18, left, and Miezue Primo, 18, show off their pain night creations as they interact with their resident advisor, Thomas Valenzuela, through Zoom at Pentland Hills Residence Hall on October 12, 2020. (UCR/Stan Lim)
December 18, 2020

First-year students: Making ‘the best out of this situation’

Resident advisors are creating ways to remain virtually connected while building a sense of community with first-year students in campus housing  

Author: Sandra Baltazar Martínez
December 18, 2020

Social distancing, quarantine norms, and online learning kept the freshman experience at UC Riverside’s residence halls a bit quieter than normal, but resident hall advisors are making sure their students still find a sense of belonging.

Two of those advisors are Nick Leiva and Thomas Valenzuela. Both of these UCR students knew one thing: virtual communication had to be the central resource of making first-year students’ experience a memorable one at Lothian and Pentland Hills. 

During fall quarter, UCR’s residence halls were occupied at a minimal capacity; about 800 students moved-in, compared to nearly 4,200 in a typical year. To adhere to COVID-19 regulations, students are living in “pods” or cohorts to minimize possible COVID-19 exposure; dormitories only house one student per room and students are tested for COVID twice a week. 

Aside from health monitoring, resident advisors, or RAs, such as Leiva and Valenzuela tried to make students feel welcomed.

“The key is thinking of ways to get them all connected,” said Leiva, a fourth-year political science major who has been an RA for two years. This academic year he’s working with 32 residents at Lothian residence hall. “This experience was a wild ride. It wasn’t ideal, but it was definitely worthwhile. I still thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to welcome new students to everything UCR has to offer and try my best in helping them find their own place in our community.”

Students with RA Nick Leiva participate in a "spooky" Halloween event. (Photo courtesy of Nick Leiva).

The work RAs such as Leiva and Valenzuela are doing is making a difference, said Lisa Laws, assistant director of Housing Services. 

“They have been bonding well since they moved in. Our RAs are being creative in how they get together digitally and we couldn’t be more appreciative of their work,” Laws said. 

Cam Clifton, resident director over Pentland Hills, acknowledges he too has found a digital platform to communicate with his team of RAs. He uses Discord as a means to foster relationships with the RAs, and simultaneously applauding their efforts. 

“One proud moment I was glad to see during the pandemic, was the intentionality of building a virtual environment for residents by my RAs,” Clifton said. “My team developed opportunities to create memories with their residents, a way to not miss a beat when it comes to their respective communities.” 

First-year students at Pentland Hills participate in a virtual paint night with their resident advisor Thomas Valenzuela, on October 12, 2020. (UCR/Stan Lim)

Students connected virtually with their RAs to ask questions, got to know their neighbors, and participated in virtual events, such as paint night, friendship bracelet making night, and even a virtual horror movie night. 

For Halloween Leiva distributed goodie bags with “spooky” face coverings, Valenzuela held a paint night; the chatter and laughter amplified from computer screens into individual rooms, and in some cases, into the lounge area where two or three students safely shared the space.

“Students have had to lean on me a lot this quarter, but that’s ok. That’s what I’m here for,” said Valenzuela, a third-year physics and math double major who has been an RA for two years. “I think they have managed really well; they have been listening to instructions. It’s sad they can’t have the traditional first-year experience, but they’ve managed.”

Valenzuela is working with 38 students at Pentland Hills. He’s gotten to know each student through virtual check-ins where they chat about classes, tutoring options, how to  get involved in clubs by joining virtual meetings, and reminding them about campus resources.  

For LGBTQ+ residents, he provided goodie bags on behalf of UCR’s LGBTQ Resource Center. 

“It’s all about making the small things feel big,” Valenzuela said. “What this pandemic has taught is to be more grateful for things.”

RA Thomas Valenzuela chats with Prabhnoor Kaur during a virtual check-in. (UCR/Stan Lim)

Prabhnoor Kaur, had a virtual check-in with Valenzuela recently. She realized she had missed a class because she focused on completing her reading for another course. Keep up with a schedule, don’t leave assignments until the last minute, Valenzuela advised her. That conversation quickly shifted into the evening’s dinner options at UCR’s new dining hall, Glasgow. 

Days before Halloween, Valenzuela’s residents had a virtual finger paint night. While they painted, he went through a list of campus resources: Library, Career Center, LGBTQ Resource Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, R’Pantry, and more. 

Students lined up to pick up paint night supplies with their RA Thomas Valenzuela. (UCR/Stan Lim)

“This is a good break from all my classes — I get to have fun and be a little messy,” said Andrew Pham, 18, after picking up a paper plate filled with finger paint. Students like Pham waited in line outside of a Pentland Hills building to choose from the eight colors Valenzuela offered. The students wore face masks, but still conversed with others and joked with their beloved RA. 

For Elliot Duong, 18, painting was something different. “But I’m really excited,” he said.

Anaiah Wilson, 18, said painting served as a de-stressor. 

“I got to do something I love: meet new people and hang out with my RA; he’s really cool,” said Wilson. “And also, just de-stress from all the Zoom meetings today.”

Killian Andrews, 18, shared the sentiment. Art is one of his fortes, which is why he wants to become a theatre major. He said his future will involve acting, directing, producing, writing, and using those skills to also be an activist. 

“This has been an experience like no other, we are all just trying to make the best out of this situation,” Andrews said. “A lot of interesting stories will come out of this. I will be part of that, of making all of this into a form of art.”

Killian Andrews, 18, interacts with residential advisor Thomas Valenzuela and other students through Zoom, in his room at Pentland Hills Residence Hall on October 12, 2020. (UCR/Stan Lim)

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