Above: A student in Berry Residence Hall writes a message about what he’s looking forward to in the fall. (Photos by Heather Moran)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020 and students had to return home, the College of Charleston’s Department of Residence Life quickly shifted to virtual engagement.

“We wanted to be sure our residents still felt supported and connected to resources even though they were experiencing a sudden and monumental shift in how they were interacting with the world around them,” says Olivia Vernon, assistant director of programming and student engagement.

Olivia Vernon

Olivia Vernon

In fall 2020, when students returned to campus, the team was ready with Cougar Chats, a program conducted by resident assistants (RAs) who share information about campus services and programs that are themed to coincide with upcoming events, deadlines and trends.

“Cougar Chats allows us to really highlight the work our campus partners have been doing, and helps connect residents with those resources,” explains Vernon.

In addition, residents are encouraged to use CougarConnect, the online hub that the Office of Student Life uses to share information about clubs and organizations as well as upcoming online and in-person events across campus.

But the focus hasn’t just been on events and resources. The Department of Residence Life also prides itself on providing highly personalized, relationship-focused opportunities. That priority led RAs to develop innovative ways to help students living on campus connect despite limited in-person contact.

For example, taking into consideration Zoom fatigue, RA Katie Miceli sent polls/check-in questions to residents to see how they were doing.

“I asked questions like ‘What’s been your favorite thing about this semester?” explains the special education and Spanish double-major. “This way I opened a line of communication and got a chance to learn more about the students and their situations.”

In her interactions with residents, Miceli learned that making friends proved to be the greatest struggle for many of them. So, as COVID numbers improved, students living on campus this spring have been allowed to safely have more face-to-face interaction in the residence halls.

Katie Micelli

Katie Miceli

“It was hard because students were tired of being on Zoom all day for classes, but then sometimes their only option to meet new people was to be on Zoom even longer for virtual events,” shares Miceli. “I think this semester has been a little bit better. I’ve seen a lot of students safely utilizing the lounge spaces, and some have shared that our new visitation policy has been really helpful for them.”

And Miceli has been inspired by the creative ways students have sought to connect with each other.

“For Valentine’s Day, a resident mentioned how in elementary school everyone used to bring little Valentines into class and pass them out to classmates,” says Miceli. “She said it would be really cool for residents to create their own Valentines and drop them off at their friends’ doors: so, I cut out a bunch of pink and purple paper hearts so that residents could write notes on them and deliver them to their friends!”

“It has been mind-blowing to see how our RAs have been able to adapt and not only process and respond to their own needs, but also provide support for each of their unique residents,” says Vernon. “We are very lucky to have such creative and dedicated student staff who truly embody the idea and purpose behind the peer educator role.”

With high hopes for a return to some normalcy in the fall, in addition to group activities, Miceli plans to incorporate some of her virtual programs since they will allow for more people to attend. That’s been one exciting aspect that will continue into the fall semester — expanding opportunities for programming and activities so students have more options to interact in different ways.

With a tentative plan for returning to normal visitation and lounge use for the fall 2021 semester, Vernon hopes students will be able to engage with each other in person and really understand what it is to be a part of the residential community at CofC.

“We are really looking forward to the fall semester and the ways that we will be able to help students connect to their peers and to the community as a whole,” says Vernon. “We know that much of this year has felt pretty atypical of what students expect, so in addition to welcoming our newest class of residential students, we hope to help our returning residents get caught up on some of the experiences that they may have missed this year.”