Sofia Mayer Interviewed by Anna Tchobanian
Introduce yourself. What's your current job title? What are your roles and responsibilities?
My name is Sofia Mayer. I'm currently a Residence Life Manager. My role is to oversee and support students in the BioHouse residence at the Days Inn hotel as well as in Lambton and Watson. In my role, I do conduct meetings and have restorative conversations with students who have not followed some of our policies. I also support students. If they're having a roommate conflict, I might coach them on talking to the roommate, I might have that conversation for them and mediate. I'm also responsible for connecting with campus partners and sharing resources to students. For example, a student might want to get connected with Indigenous Students Center, I might help facilitate that or they might want to get connected with a counselor. Definitely a lot of different roles. I also do on-call shifts, so I'll be on call for a week straight every few weeks. If there's any emergencies, I'll get a call so whether its facilities related (something within the building) or if it's a student having a personal crisis, I go and respond to that situation.
What was your job when the pandemic started?
When the pandemic started back to March 2020, I was a Resident Assistant. It was a part time job, I was still a student, it was the end of my second year of studies. I was a student who lived in residence, and I supported a floor of students. I lived in East towers Residence, Glengarry, and I was responsible for four suites, including my own. I would do things like decorate the information boards on the floor, I would talk to them if they were having personal issues, or a roommate conflicts, or if they just wanted to chat, I would share resources. So, in a way, it's a similar job I'm doing now. But now I manage Resident Assistants. As a result of the pandemic, Student Housing wanted to give Resident Assistants jobs the next year, and they couldn't accommodate all of them on campus. So, the next year I got offered the Online Community Mentor job. That was the 2020 to 2021 school year. I was an Online Community Mentor from August to it would have been around April. It was almost like an online Residence Assistant. On Microsoft Teams, we ran a page for students where we would connect with them, we would call them that kind of stuff. And then as the pandemic continued, I believe it was September of 2021, I came back to campus and did a role on campus in residence again.
How did the initial shutdown affect you? What issues needed to get sorted out at the very beginning? How did your job change?
The pandemic did have a really huge impact. Residents tend to live in close quarters. You don't have your own space or anything like that, but a lot of people live in one building. The East Residence building, I'm not sure how many people live there, but I want to guess it was something like 600. Some suites have up to 12 people in them. In terms of COVID, it wasn't the best building to be in for social distancing. I remember hearing about COVID and at first, we didn't really feel very impacted. We had heard about it and the news going on in China. But you never think that it's going to impact you. But I remember it would have been around March Break this one week, people start talking about COVID even more and there started being cases in Canada, and every day it would grow a little bit. It would be one day was the first case and then a few days later it was 100 or however many. We started as Resident Assistants knowing that we live so close to other people and that our job required us to be in close proximity to other people, we were kind of freaking out, we weren't sure what was going to happen. We were like “is our job going to acknowledge this?” but they did quickly. So, in March, it would have been around March break, maybe a little bit earlier. The university announced that it was going to stop doing in person class for a little bit, I remember a lot of other universities announced it, and then Guelph did as well. We were like “what does this mean for residents to lose where we live?” My work let us know that residence was going to shut down and everyone had to go home. That included employees to some extent, but they were willing to make exceptions for some people. Students that were international students or really couldn't go home for personal reasons were able to stay in the townhouses, but the townhouses, I assume accommodate only around maybe 500 students, maybe they have like 600 beds, something like that. Only a few could stay, and that included only few employees. We had sort of discussed it and decided who to accommodate. I live in Brampton, which is only 15 minutes away from Guelph, and I have a family there. I'm very lucky and privileged to have a family that is safe to go home to. I knew for me, I was going to go home, there was no other option. It was really quick; I remember I just packed really quick. I packed everything in garbage bags, because I found out I had to leave like a few days before we actually had to leave, and my family was really worried. They wanted me to just start packing fast. The students were sort of allowed to leave whenever and then they asked Resident Assistants to try their best to stay into the last day. It was really emotional for some people, because I remember for example, there was one girl from Minnesota, and she was an international student from the states, and she was really worried about the border closing. She just told our work “I have to go” and they were understanding. She left as soon as she could, as soon as they found that the university was closing her family just drove up. For some people it was more of a little bit of a few more days of waiting, I remember I was stressed because I was like “I don't know, like how serious this is, do I leave now or am I allowed to?” So, it didn't take long. Luckily, we're also compensated, I believe we got some money back for what we paid for residence, because Residence Assistants get a discount, and they also get paid to work in residence, but they do pay for residence. We got some money back for the month, or a few weeks and we still go compensated for the end of our contract, which was really generous. So financially, at that point, it didn't have an impact on me. But mentally, it was a lot of stress and a lot of paranoia. At that point, there was just a lot of anxiety about everything, and you were anxious to wear a mask, because you were like “oh, people are going to think I'm paranoid, they're going to think I'm weird” and you were anxious to also not wear a mask, because you were like “maybe I'm supposed to do this.” We just didn't even know the science yet. In our roles, we had to walk around the whole building and one night we had to open and close a bunch of doors to make sure that things are locked so it was very stressful. I had to touch all these doorknobs and the news is telling me not to, but I have to check this building. It's part of my job. Looking at it now, I think the school was doing the best they could and I don't feel like I was exploited or anything like that. In the moment, I didn't either, I didn't know what to do and I don't think anyone did. And I think that the university was responding well to the to the pandemic, but I don't think anyone knew if they were doing the correct thing. I don't think that you can always know that in the moment. I think sometimes it takes like reflecting on the past to be like, “oh, we could have done this better,” or “maybe we should have changed that.”
How did building rounds change? Did you still follow the same routine? Or did that routine have to change?
I'll be honest, I don't fully remember how rounds changed. I think this goes for everything. During those initial days of the pandemic, everything changed day by day, because people were adapting really slowly. Rounds were the same in a lot of ways. The purpose for rounds is that we check every stairwell, we check every door to make sure it's locked, so that everything is checked every day, that way, if a student wanders down there, because they're sad, somebody might go find them have that conversation or somebody gets hurt. You never know somebody could be passed out. We're supposed to check basically every corner of the building. So that doesn't change, we still had to check every corner of the building, we still had to open things and I think we were even more cautious because at that point, there was a lot of misinformation about the pandemic. What if somebody got COVID and went to a corner somewhere. If anything, I think we were even more diligent. In terms of how it changed, we were told to wear gloves. I think masks might have been optional. I think at that time gloves were more emphasized than masks, which is really interesting, because as the pandemic continued, it kind of became the opposite, where we sort of discussed how gloves can give people a sense of false security. It was more emphasized to wear a shield and a mask. But in those early stages, I don't remember wearing a mask or being provided a mask, at least for the first couple of days. In East Tower, during rounds we’ll knock on every other suite. The suites are not considered private space, we just have to announce ourselves. At some suites, we’d enter and there would be a party going on because it was close to St. Patrick's Day. I remember that some of our RAs were really upset. They were like I can’t believe they are throwing a party, there's a pandemic and other people were like, “well, we don't even know if there's any cases in our city, maybe they should throw a party, it's their last chance.” Who knows, maybe we won't get to have parties for two years. It was a lot of conversations about morals and people didn't really know I think some people felt really strongly one way; some people felt really strongly the other way. As the days rolled on, people felt even more upset because they were like, well, I'm going home to my family, you throwing this party could really get other people hurt and other people sick. As the building got empty it wasn't necessary to do rounds so many times in the night, we do rounds twice a night, sometimes three times. As the building got empty, as long as we checked everything, we could usually just do rounds one time at like 10pm. So that's kind of how it started to be. Closer to like, the last day that students were expected to leave residence, our rounds became about making sure that they were leaving, and it wasn't about forcing anyone. We'd have conversations like, “Hey, have you started packing?” If they said no, we would be like “You know tomorrow's the deadline to leave? Have you planned? Are your parents picking you up?” or we would discuss solutions to them. Let's say, they were like, “Oh, my parents, didn't have a car,” we'd be like, “do you want us to help you look at bus routes? Do you have a friend who can help you carry your stuff to the bus stop?” Or explain to people how they can apply to stay and how that process works. So, part of our role was also helping them plan things out. And then in later stages of the pandemic rounds were pretty similar to how they used to be in terms of having multiple rounds night and just that different things were emphasized. So, for the next few years, you had to wear a mask and shield. People didn’t like the shield as it would fog up. We do a lot of running up and downstairs and it can be hard to do that with a mask on, with a shield on. So people would take it off, make sure that their manager didn’t know. The workplace became a little more tense as it was so easy to get in trouble for something at work. I’m not judging, they were just trying to be safe. You were trying to guess – okay, who is going to let me take my mask off. But there was a lot of judgement around it. The same thing came with RAs who were really offended by student not wearing a mask with their friend and were maybe harsher with that student or were less understanding or they felt really impacted, they were like, “you went out and you have COVID and now because of that, I can’t visit my family.” It was a lot of, especially living in such close residence, you realized that other people's actions directly impact you.
How did you personally feel about returning to work? Being an OCM and coming back to campus to be Program Facilitator, did residence change once you were back at work compared to last time you were in residence?
The program facilitator job I think, there’s six of those jobs on campus, and I was really excited. So, before the pandemic even happened, I was so excited that that I got the job. I found out I got that job in February. COVID existed at that point, but in Canada we weren't really aware of it like we knew it existed, but we never thought it was going to impact us. So, I was so excited for the next school year, and I was so excited to do I have my own suite. When I found out that I wasn't going to get to come back the next year, at least in person, I was miserable. I was so sad; I was really upset. I didn't know what to do, because I had been offered the chance to come back and be an RA in person. But I also knew that that was going to come with a lot of challenges. Things spread really easily in residence, because we live in closer quarters, students might not always follow rules. So, I decided to not stay in residence and instead do the online job. I had a really hard time making that decision. But I ultimately made that decision. And I ended up loving staying at home more than I thought. Because I would talk to my friends who were staying on campus as Resident Assistants, and they were like, “I'm so lonely, if I get COVID It's so scary, because I have to isolate in my room by myself for two weeks.” They were telling me how isolating was even kind of expensive, because they had to order their meals and they had to ask people for favors: “can you bring me you know, through my window, can you bring me my favorite stuffed animal” or whatever that they hadn't brought or didn't have. My family was super safe. We bought a bunch of games; we would play those games together. And I got so much family like quality time. Also living with family, it's also less labor. Because there's seven of us, if I clean a little bit, I'm helping you. Versus by myself, I have to kind of do everything by myself whether that's cooking, cleaning, and so I got really comfortable. They also found I was saving so much money because I wasn't going out and I was still working and the Online Community Mentor job with my students being at a distance, it was a lot less emotionally demanding than being a Residence Assistant. You're not getting knocks at 3AM. If you know a student messages you and you don't see it, you answer the next day or if a student is being emotionally draining, I know that once I turn off my notifications off or put away my computer that I know work is not a concern. So, it was really easy in terms of work life balance. I actually really was hoping that we would be able to do the next year fully online. That was the year I asked to be Program Facilitator. I was really nervous coming back because I was really scared, I was going to be homesick because after being home for so long, I think I cried more leaving my mom and moving in as a fourth year than I did as a first year because during the whole pandemic, being home third I was more attached than I was in high school. I was really upset to have to go back to working in person and I had to because the Online Community Mentor job wasn't going to exist anymore. I remember deciding to come back because I think there were certain classes I wanted to do in person, it just made more sense to come back. I had really mixed feelings. I was still always kind of on the edge about the day the school is going to call me and they're going to be like, “Hey, you have to go home in a week,” because that's what happened in March 2020. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. It's what they had to do. But I always had that paranoia because I remember when the Omicron variant came out, I was like, “we're all going to be sent home.” I remember I packed late. My mom even left moving boxes. She was like, “Who knows? In case that happens, let's just be prepared. That way, you can quickly pack.” We kind of had that on my mind of, I could be here for a week and have a really great week, and then who knows what's going to happen. But the good thing about moving in is that at that point, at least, we had vaccines. So, it took away a lot of anxiety knowing I can reduce my chances of getting this, and if I do get it, then you know, it's a little bit less risky, at least. But then there were also issues with other things. We were really worried about exemptions because, we're worried a lot of students were going to request exemptions and then it's like, if no one's vaccinated, people bringing in letters of “my pre-signed my exemption.” Maybe they're not religious, but they just don't believe in vaccines, and they get anyone to sign it,” and then they don’t have to get a vaccine. We were really stressed about that of, is COVID going to spread throughout residence because of exemptions? But I don't believe a lot of people ended up having exemptions that year anyways.
Would you say generally, the program facilitator job was a positive experience? Or was it more negative?
I think it was absolutely a positive experience. I think that I needed to after being home for a year and being so attached to my parents. I think I needed to branch out and remember what it's like to be independent and be social. It was a little bit hard at first, I remember, during Resident Assistant training. Even if you worked as an Assistant before you come back for training, and it's around two weeks, it's like Monday to Saturday, and they're long days, you're always with your team, live in same building, you're going to training sessions together. I remember our team had so much conflict, which is really surprising, because we're a team that still gets along. I think it just really stemmed from, we just hadn't been used to talking to people all day, and it was just really exhausting. But at first, it started with a lot of anxiety. I remember I just suddenly had social anxiety. I don't mean that I actually was diagnosed or that I think I know what it's like to actually have that. But it just felt like that for the first couple of months where I would go home and after spending a day with people I would reflect on everything I said wrong. I would just think about “I said this,” I'd send like apology paragraphs to people being like, “oh my god, I'm so sorry, I said that.” But when I actually started the job, it ended up being positive, positive doesn't mean that there weren't struggles, though, it was positive in the sense that I built a great connection with the students. They were students that I felt were a little bit demanding emotionally. Because there were some issues in that building in terms of people having things going on their personal lives. They had been students who struggled a lot academically because they had gotten used to on-line school, coming to university can be very different and I think they struggled more academically than other years. We had a lot of students homesick a lot of students like wanting to go home every single weekend, and then feeling like they weren't making friends at university, because we were always home. We had a lot of students who, because that that semester was hybrid, they would just be home all the time. It was really interesting, it ended up being positive. But in terms of anything that was negative or difficult, as Program Facilitator, my job is to facilitate one event a week. I do everything a Residence Assistant does, but then I also facilitate one event a week. They had to be an arts related event because I was working for Arts House. I found that programming was really hard. I wanted to plan out my events and my programs that summer before and just have everything ready. I showed up at training and my managers didn't even know yet if I was going to be allowed to do any in person events. I think there are great online events, and I think there's a lot of value to them, but people can be really drained and really sick of those kinds of things. People wanted that in person connections. I ended up being able to have in person events, but it was still tricky. It was pretty easy in September and October because I just did outdoor things. I would get 50 people, and maybe not 50. I found students were more open to events and really wanted to get to know people. It helped me at first but then when we had to transition to online events, it was really difficult. It was harder to get engagement, people just didn't want to do an online version of event. They want us to do in person versions. One thing that was really challenging is in the winter when it got too cold to do events outside. Our lounges had certain capacities. The biggest lounge in Arts House, I could only have 12 people in at a time. We weren't allowed to go to different buildings because that we could give those people COVID and we're not respecting social distancing. Understandably, another building might not want to have us bring in 30 students who they've never interacted with, so it was understandable. But it was difficult, I almost wanted to under promote my events because there's me who's working and who has to be at the event, and then the Resident Assistant. If more than 10 students come, I have to turn people away, or do a second time slot. If too many people come, I have to turn them away. So, it was just super hard, not knowing what to do. Even in terms of different time slots. Let's say 50 people participate and the whole building comes, that's basically like around four or five time slots. An event that's supposed to take up an hour of my time is now taking five hours, because I have to basically run it five times, or I have to give people a really short experience, it has to be like 15-minute versions of the event. They might not be willing to come into my next event. It was really challenging. Being a student, I couldn't spend five hours: I'm already planning the event, buying materials for it and then running it. I can't spend five hours running every event. The COVID restrictions also kept changing. There were times where it was this month, I can only have five of you in the event. Next month, I can have 12. Things were just always changing; it was hard to plan ahead. But it taught me to be creative and taught me to problem solve. I still had some really fun events and I think I did the best with the tools I was given. One thing I will say that was a really positive thing about event planning during the pandemic was the online events rarely took up a lot of our budget, most online events you can run for free because you can ask people to play a game online with you that's free. Or you can ask people drink tea with us for free, and maybe they even bring their own tea. A lot of the events were really affordable, which is amazing. It allowed me when I did do those in person events, spend more money on them. One positive was that we had a lot of budget leftover that year for programming but the consequence of that is that when in residence we don't spend our budget, higher up managers are looking at how much to give us next year, they might be like, “we gave them 200 this year, they only spent 150, so that means next year they need 150.” When we had to start doing in person events, sometimes we found that we just didn't have enough money. Sometimes even when we would have in person events, we would still have online events, even after the pandemic because we have to do for money’s sake. But the good thing too was flexibility. I if I went home for the weekend, I could still run my event from home, because it was online. It allowed me to go home for long periods of time when I was feeling homesick because I could still work online.
To shift more on the manager role again, as you mentioned you've taken on many positions − you were an OCM, Program Facilitator, an Assistant Residence Life Manager, and now a Residence Life Manager. Since the pandemic started, which job proved to be the most challenging and did the pandemic change your relationship with your current job or your past jobs in student housing?
I can tell you that the OCM job was by far the easiest. There was a lot less confrontation, you were kind of there to support people, post things, get resources. Every in-person job during the pandemic had its difficulties for different reasons. I think the hardest job was probably Assistant Residence Manager. I became an Assistant Residence Manager in January of 2022 so at that point the Omicron variant had just started to spread and we were really unsure about it. I became an Assistant Residence Manager when the university got started to be stricter with policies surrounding COVID. They were strict in September when I was a Program Facilitator and cases didn’t spread much as we thought they would. They were more understanding; they started to allow certain limits and allow more people in rooms and then Omnicom came and we lost all that freedom. I think that was really hard for students because they had experienced some freedom and I think after it was around almost the two-year mark of the pandemic. People were so mentally done that they were really upset. Assistant Manager was really challenging because I had to fine students for not wearing their mask, fine students for having more than one other person in the room at a time, fine students for having an off-campus guest in their room or a friend from a different residence. We really emphasized relationship building and we like to take a restorative approach in residence. What that means is we try to be understanding. If someone gets a noise complaint, am I allowed to fine? Most likely, but why? When I can first be like “why don't you like to repair the harms this option? Why don't you write this assignment?” And give people opportunities and ask people how I can help you not repeat this behavior. But with the pandemic present I was told by I believe the municipal government, maybe the city, that they were advised to get fines so it wasn't really in our power. We worked with the city to discuss solutions and so it was the city's decision. It would be my first-time meeting somebody and I would have to tell them that they're getting a fine and it was really hard because I know what it's like to be student and it's a $60 fine for your student. It’s a lot of money. It was really tricky for people because sometimes they just would cry that they were getting fined or they would be like “can I get a second chance? I didn't mean to do this.” We were more understanding than it sounds - not all the fines were charged the first time, sometimes you would do conditional fines which means they're not charged unless they violate another policy. But often students would because they'd get lonely and they want a friend over, they'd want their boyfriend from another university over and they’d sneak them in, and they get caught. People who maybe had never gotten in trouble in high school were really nervous felt like they were getting in trouble for something that, in their eyes, didn't seem as a big deal. It made that relationship building really hard because when you're meeting somebody for the first time and they’re fining you, and they're really upset. It was just my job. I was doing what I had to do and especially when you're new to a job like you don't you want to do everything by the book. I mean in general, you typically at work try to do everything by the book but especially when you're new, and I couldn’t make exceptions. It was really hard because students would ask me to make exceptions for them which is really difficult. Students would be like “can't you just give me a warning? Can't you just change your notes and say I didn’t do it.” You're putting me in a really difficult position, at the end of the day you did do this thing and it could lead to me losing my job, it’s not appropriate for you to ask me to risk my job and even my career.” You don't have to pay $60, I get it, that that's a lot for you but there's more, there's a lot at stake for everyone, right. I think like that Assistant Manager job was really hard. My staff was really burnt out, I was really burnt out, everyone at work was really burned out and when my staff need support, they're coming for those conversations and with my role to support them, it’s not that I didn’t want to support them but there were times where I was like, “oh my gosh, I need that support too.” I lived in South residence, which a lot of students lived there used to be one of the biggest residences in Ontario. It's basically three buildings that are connected, I think this year 1900 students lived there. During the pandemic, residence was a lot emptier because we didn't have triple rooms, but it still would have been a lot. Assistant Managers live in a suite in that building, so I lived there, and it was really hard because I would walk the halls and every time I left my room, I would see somebody without a mask and I'm the manager, I have to have that conversation because I can't expect my staff to have those conversations without having them. It was just so draining. One thing I would do is sort of avoid having conversations, the three buildings are connected itself, but they also each have an entrance. So sometimes, if I wanted to just walk through the building, I had to basically walk through like 8 hallways, it was like a 5-minute walk, seven-minute walk, inside the building just to get to my room. I can pass by like 50 students without a mask in that moment and I don't have the time to have every conversation. One thing I would do is, I would just walk in through the entrance of Maritime instead so I would have to walk down two hallways instead of eight. That way I'm having those conversations with students but I'm saving myself that mental energy and I'm choosing to walk a little bit more time outside in the cold. I even advised my staff to do the same I was like, “If you have the mental energy to walk all the way through the building and have those conversations, that's amazing! If you see a student without a mask, I still expect you to have that conversation. But if you would rather walk outside a little bit longer and go through the entrance of Maritime or Prairie, or wherever you live instead of through another entrance because that way you have two conversations about masks instead of five, do what works for you. Sometimes you have to take care of yourself and your mental energy.” That’s one thing I did to try to not get burnt out. I tried to not always walk inside as much, and yeah, it’s definitely hard living where you work, especially when it's a time where you have to address everything. I also found that addressing masks as a manager was so difficult because people felt very strongly about masks. There was a lot of political thoughts. I'm not going to enforce my opinions; I was just telling them to wear a mask because of the policies. I would just tell me because of the policies, because of residence, but when I told people to wear their masks, they took it as me not valuing their political voice when I never even discussed political beliefs. It was very hard. We even had RA's who did not believe in wearing masks but they did so because of their job and they enforced it because of their jobs. It was really difficult because people felt targeted or they felt like you were trying to tell them something but you had an underlying motive when really, I just had to do my job.