Navigation Toggle Icon

How the pandemic has changed ResLife

Rebecca O’Hare, Assistant Director of Residence Life & Accommodation at the University of Leeds and co-host of the student affairs podcast Free Food, Free Drinks, shares her insights on the Residence Life sector, some of the revelations that have emerged from the pandemic, and how it might shape it going forwards.

Researchers have found that a student’s accommodation experience contributes significantly to what they learn, the friendships they form, how their identities evolve, whether or not they’ll graduate, and their overall satisfaction with university life. The purpose of Residence Life – which might also be described as a student experience programme or annual events calendar – has always been to create and deliver a programme of holistic support for students in halls of residence: providing opportunities to meet likeminded individuals; feeling part of a caring community; and understanding who to turn to if and when things get tough. It’s a creative and collaborative area, one in which ideas and best practice are shared freely across universities not only in the UK and Ireland, but across the world.

Our ultimate aim is to enhance students’ university experience. It can be a challenge for teams to measure whether they’ve succeeded, although we try: recording attendance figures for events, gathering survey feedback, taking stock of students who lead their own initiatives, and shining a light on the Resident Assistants (RAs) and accommodation teams whose behaviour has made a hall community feel supported, disciplined and celebrated.

Sometimes you see the successes in person – students telling you during an exam period that an event we’ve organised has taken their mind off exams, or watching students meet at an event for the first time and being able to see those friendships blossom over the course of the year. There’s a real satisfaction in seeing the difference it makes to students’ lives, and it makes it worth all the hard work.

But then, 2020 hit. Enter Covid, the removal of face-to-face interactions, and a transition to the delivery of Residence Life activity online. My Residence Life team were brilliant: self-sufficient, creative, motivated, and quick to find holistic solutions to issues, and I’m proud of what we achieved throughout the past 18 months. But as we head into a new academic year, it’s clear that the status quo being turned upside down has brought about some revelations for ResLife professionals across the sector.

First, the world of Residence Life has collectively realised that we should have delivered online events long before, as it provided many students with increased opportunity of engagement. I’ve come across students who were overwhelmed or anxious about the prospect of an event with more than 100 people in the past, and have long advocated for small events to help these students feel able to engage – but by bringing events online and having a wider range of options, we were able to reach these students more easily.

Those who were initially hesitant to engage in person now felt safer, less anxious, and more empowered to be themselves with their screen turned off. Residence Life aims to be inclusive of all students, but we realised that physical events had been less equitable in engaging students, as they catered to extroverts who possessed the confidence to participate in person. As a result, for 2021, the University of Leeds has over 100 events planned for welcome, with a hybrid of online and in-person events.

The second realisation, however, is that the move online has brought with it some new areas of inequity. The concept of today’s students being ‘digital natives’ is not new, and with this in mind, the success of virtual Residence Life programmes during the pandemic may seem obvious. However, just because students may arrive on campus knowing that elements of their student experience will be digital, doesn’t mean they will intuitively understand how to engage with your shiny new online residence life resources.

Many students had to get used to using Teams or Zoom, which they may have previously used – but not in large groups. There’s the etiquette of virtual meetings that students and staff alike have had to learn over the past year and a half. Finding ways to reach students who may shun or not engage with social media is another area to keep in mind. These students are often digitally literate, but have either made a conscious choice not to engage through these channels – or lacked the access to do so.

Wearing a social justice hat, providing access and outlining how to utilise these opportunities should be just as important a component as creating the community itself. Making the assumption that digital natives have sophisticated technical digital skills and will figure out the platform removes the potential for a conversation that focuses on the role Residence Life teams can play in the development of students’ digital skills. This conversation will ensure that virtual communities are easily accessible, useful, successful, and for all.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced Higher Education to re-evaluate how services for students are delivered and how they can continue uninterrupted in the face of adversity, and Residence Life professionals have responded to this challenge creatively and with bundles of enthusiasm. Virtual communities will become a prominent feature in the future of ResLife, and I welcome them: they are another option for realising the possibilities of Residence Life. It expands upon the traditional offering, moving it forward, forcing us all to try something new – and, most importantly, providing a more equitable experience for more students.

You can hear from Rebecca on our latest Accommodation Matters podcast episode here: