The Outbreak | As an RA, I lost my job and home in one day

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic affects our lives. Today, Jacob Mahaffey talks about the end of his career as a resident assistant.

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Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt’s Resident Assistants have had their responsibilities suspended for the remainder of the semester.

I’ve often been given a sage piece of advice — keep your work separate from your home. If I had listened more closely to that, I probably wouldn’t have become a Resident Assistant, and certainly wouldn’t have signed up for a second year after that. Any RA can tell you that when you’re in your room, the responsibilities of an RA are nearly inescapable. Even placing a “do not disturb” sign outside your door does not guarantee your privacy, as any number of emergencies may take precedence over whatever it was you had hoped to do. When you’re an RA, your home literally is your work.

This is a truth of the position that all RAs hopefully already know when they apply for the job. The wisdom of keeping home and work separate is kindly rejected — RAs understand the necessary sacrifice that the position requires. And for the most part, this interconnectedness of both work and home doesn’t cause many problems — that is, at least, until you are forced to lose either of those things. Or both. Enter the coronavirus.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that RAs are the only people who were greatly affected by Pitt’s precautionary measures in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Nor am I attempting to negate the necessity of such actions. Rather, what I mean to highlight is the way in which RAs lost their jobs and their rooms in a single, unfortunate email. When Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s initial email hit the inbox of every student, everyone had immediate and specific questions — many of which could not be answered until well after we entered panic mode.

In the GroupMe of my (now former) RA staff, our immediate questions revolved around the ways we would be affected by the shift to online courses and request that students return home. Does this apply to RAs? Are we going to be forced to stay on campus in order to ensure that someone is on duty? If we go through the effort of requesting to stay in University housing, what is going to happen to the RA Award that eliminates the cost of room and board? My residents are asking me now what is going to happen to them. Do they have to leave now? What if they can’t leave on the date Panther Central told them to? What am I supposed to tell them? These RA-specific questions continued for a few hours before we got any answers.

On top of this, we felt the same stress that affected so many other students. What if we can’t afford to go home? What if my classes aren’t the kind that work online? What will happen to my access to food on campus? As more information was slowly released via a number of separate emails, some of these worries and questions were answered.

I think every RA will agree that the email that stands out the most is one that came from an assistant director in the Office of Residence Life that, effective immediately, all our responsibilities as Resident Assistants were suspended for the remainder of the academic year. We were encouraged, like every other student, to leave campus and return home, unless this was something we were unable to do. And that was that. We had just lost our jobs. And unless we had a reason to stay, we had just lost our homes as well. All it took was one email to end our career for the rest of the semester. That’s what’s so hard about literally living in the same place you work — the two became inseparable to the point that to lose one meant to lose the other.

In some ways, I am grateful for that email. For starters, it answered quite a few of our questions. What were we supposed to do as RAs? Easy, you aren’t RAs anymore. What are we supposed to tell our residents? Easy, just check for updates from Pitt in your email. When we were relieved of our jobs, we were relieved of any other responsibilities. Luckily, we learned that our room and board awards would stand as well. All these extra questions went away when we were finally allowed to be regular students again. For perhaps the first time in my — almost — two-year tenure as an RA, I felt no guilt about being just as out of the loop as everyone else. For the first time, I didn’t feel like I had to know what to do — I could sit and wallow in the same anxiety every other student was facing following such an eventful day of news.

In a lot of other ways, however, the email was extremely painful. One thing that comes with an inseparable work and home is an increased emotional attachment to the work itself. Almost any RA will tell you that the most rewarding part of the position is the people you meet. The staff is your family. You have learned together, ate together, grown together and lived together. Leaving your home meant leaving your family behind. Over my two years as an RA, I made some of my best friends in college. Living with my coworkers allowed me to share my frustrations, anxieties and accomplishments with someone dealing with the same stressors I was. Our shared experience as RAs helped set the stage for close bonds, on which I leaned heavily when I needed support, either in my job or outside it.

Beyond the staff, losing the RA job meant losing connections with your residents. The goal of every RA is to create the best residential experience possible. Having to leave campus means distancing the connections you’ve made with your residents. I planned countless programs and spent hours getting to know my residents to help make their first year at Pitt successful. I can’t do that from home. While we all know that our time together is only ever for a year, ending on such an abrupt note hurts. Even as someone who did not reapply to be an RA next year, I never wanted my career to end in such a way. There is absolutely no closure in this.

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