Fresno State student residents experience unique shift in dorm life

A daytime shot of the Fresno State housing facilities. (Courtesy Michele Dunlap, assistant director of housing at Fresno State)

Transitioning to online learning and at-home college classes has been the new normal for Fresno State students, but for those living at Fresno State Student Housing, the shift has come with many unique changes due to COVID-19.

Karen Carrillo, second year and Associated Student Inc. (ASI) secretary of resident affairs, has lived in the dorms since her freshman year, and said the differences before and after the pandemic have significantly changed the dorm life for residents. 

“It’s changed quite drastically, given the amount of students who are even on campus,” Carillo said. “So, just not being able to socialize with a lot of people. Even the events and programs, because there was always something to do. Either it was in the dorms or even on campus, so that has also changed.”

The Residential Life program at Fresno State typically holds numerous events throughout the academic year for students, but it has had to change course due to COVID-19.

Large events are no longer planned for residents, and visitors are not allowed to enter the dormitories.

In an average year, up to 1,100 students can reside at the dorms. 206 residents are currently at the dorms to accommodate social distancing policies.

Additionally, requirements such as daily health screening questionnaires, social distancing, wearing masks and other policies are in place to ensure the health of students.

Further additions such as cleaning and disinfecting protocols throughout the dormitories have also been implemented, and hands-free hand sanitation stations are available in the University Dining Hall and communal areas.

High-traffic areas where students often interact are sanitized frequently in the dorms, and new plexiglass screens have been installed in the front desk and Atrium to protect employees.

Lisa Boyles, public information officer for Fresno State, said that pandemic-related expenses have cost about $55,000.

“These expenses include signage, personal protective equipment, materials for isolation … and supplies for cleaning,” Boyles said.

Such major changes have impacted the dynamic in the resident community, but students continue to find other means to interact with one another.

These changes have come at the cost of many students’ college experiences. 

(Courtesy Michele Dunlap, assistant director of housing at Fresno State)

About 50% of residents are first-year students, including incoming freshman and transfer students, and many share sentiments regarding the lack of their first-year experience in the dorms.

Sandra Carranza, a first-year student, said that it is easier to focus on work with online courses, but there are definite downsides.

“Not being able to actually have your freshman year of college,” Carranza said. “It’s not a great feeling. … It does feel like you’re missing out on something.”

Liam Goss, a first-year student, said that getting used to new policies was difficult at first. Many students were confused by the steps they had to take to fill out daily health screenings, and they weren’t sure how they would be able to walk around campus.

Goss said the rules became normal after a brief period of adjustment, and residents were able to spend time together while still practicing such policies.

Students are provided with individual suites and bathrooms to accommodate social distancing, and major areas like the dining hall have designated places for students to stand in lines, pick up meals and take them outdoors.

“The RA [resident adviser] and the staff, they’re all trying their best to make it sociable and fun. The other night they did a movie night in the little quad area, but they sprayed circles in the grass where you can sit and they were all six feet apart,” Goss said. “I’m sure it’s a lot different than normal college life, but it’s not as bad as it could be.”

RAs are facing new challenges, particularly with enforcing social distancing protocols and guidelines for masks. These challenges magnify their responsibilities in supporting students and enforcing rules.

Christopher Cruz-Murillo, an RA, said that new procedures have created a challenging environment for resident advisers to work in.

“The drastic change due to the pandemic has made me feel as if I’m a first year RA adjusting to the new policies and procedures,” Cruz-Murillo said. “Going from 85 residents last year to less than 20 this year has been a bit discouraging, but it has given me a chance to know my residents on a closer level.”

In order to make sure residents are following social distancing policies and are remaining safe, resident advisers take turns making rounds throughout the dorms every day.

Although guidelines are enforced, early into the semester it was a difficult task to manage.

There was an icebreaker event held at the beginning of the year where Carillo said she felt concerned about proper social distancing protocols. The event had students interact in a game called “This or That,” and facilitators asked participants to gather together in lines based on their common interests.

Carillo said that the activity left no room for social distancing, which left her uncomfortable and worried for the safety of her peers.

She brought up these concerns to the housing director who agreed that stricter rules should be enforced to better protect the health of residents. RAs are instructed to tell residents to practice social distancing and enforce masks if students are seen not following instructions.

“I made her aware of that and she did tell me they were going to resolve that because that shouldn’t have happened. I do just think they need to take more precautions and be more strict with what kind of things they’re hosting,” Carillo said.

First-year resident Arya Desai looks at the situation with a positive outlook. Desai said that the situation in the dorms was not what he initially expected, but having close friends in the dorms has allowed him to enjoy his time there.

“I think that they are handling the COVID situation, pretty well. Obviously there’s going to be certain risks, but they are managing it to the best that they can, and the RAs are definitely on top of it,” Desai said.

To prevent residents from feeling isolated, staff and RAs continue to reach out to students with activities and resources to still create a comfortable and safe environment.

Michele Dunlap, assistant director of housing, said that creating a community between residents is a big part of the resident experience. 

“Per state and public health guidelines, the majority of typical programs have been suspended at this time to help ensure the health and safety of our community,” Dunlap said. 

Promoting alternative group activities like outdoor movies, video game nights and Zoom bingo have been added to accommodate social distancing rules. Other self-directed programs like grab-and-go crafts, door decorating and paint nights allow residents to enjoy activities on their own.

Resident Sandra Carranza said that the experience has definitely been a strange one, and not something she was expecting for her first year in college. `Still, she felt the community that has come out of the situation continues to support residents through these times.

“Although a lot of this has been happening, one thing that I think is an upside of it is it’s brought a lot of people together, closer together,” Carranza said. “We started to trust each other a little bit more.”

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