Dartmouth UGAs adapt to challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic

Throughout the last year, undergraduate advisors aimed to support their residents and foster community despite virtual formats and isolating safety guidelines.

by Kristin Chapman | 9/7/21 5:15am

Robinson Hall hosts part of the Office of Residential Life, which oversees UGAs.
by Maddie Doerr / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

Each year, Dartmouth undergraduate advisors play an important role within the Dartmouth community as resources to other students. According to the Office of Residential Life website, UGAs, who are assigned to live on a floor with students in their own housing community or in a Living Learning Community, facilitate a sense of community and work to maintain the health and wellbeing of their residents by acting as a support resource and organizing social events.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought additional responsibilities to the position, such as enforcing health and safety guidelines, organizing and facilitating virtual events and attempting to foster a sense of community through a period of increased social isolation for many. 

Amina Zoklat ’23 said that the opportunity to build community, as well as the guaranteed housing and monetary benefits, inspired her to become a UGA. Zoklat worked as a UGA for all four terms this past year and noted how changing COVID-19 guidelines made each term different from the next. 

“I think the fall was tough because mask mandates were really strict, and number guidelines — like room limit numbers — were really strict, so it was hard to be someone who’s enforcing the rules ... but it was also something that had to happen for everyone’s safety,” she said. 

Grace Lu ’23, who was also a UGA last fall, said that she and some other UGAs felt “uncomfortable” enforcing certain COVID-19 guidelines, especially when they thought the rules were unclear. According to Lu, there were also discrepancies between how strictly individual UGAs enforced pandemic-related health policies.

“I know some UGAs would write people up if they were eating by themselves outside unmasked, and then other UGAs would write five people up [for eating outside unmasked] ... so it was very unstandardized,” she said, adding, “I remember some of the UGAs — including me –– we wrote a collective letter to [former] Dean [of the College Kathryn] Lively to get that sorted out.”

Lu added that even after the group wrote the letter, many of their concerns were left unaddressed. 

“I think [Lively] wrote back saying, ‘Oh, we hear you guys.’ But I also don’t think she really acted on anything that we tried to tell her about,” she said. 

Andy Bean ’23 said that when he was a UGA in the fall and winter, he occasionally encountered the same problem of students violating campus policies outside or in the tent in front of his building, adding that he felt uncertain whether it fell within his responsibilities to enforce COVID-19 guidelines in these locations.

“It was just a little silly and poorly communicated as to how that should be done and why,” Bean said. 

While Zoklat said she did not face many issues in terms of enforcing COVID-19 rules, she noted the difficulty of building community relationships in the virtual format. 

“We had a budget for prizes and the events we could do virtually, and even with all of that incentive, it was really hard to get people to show up to those events,” Zoklat said. “On a floor where I might have 30 or 40 residents, like three or four showed up. It’s not the greatest turnout.” 

Bean said he also saw a low turnout for a virtual pop culture bracket competition that he organized during winter term. Out of over 500 Allen House residents, no more than 15 students participated in any given round of the competition.  

“On the other hand, I do know that playing mafia on Zoom was quite popular with the Allen House ’24s,” he added. “I think there were more people at those, probably because they knew it worked really well in the virtual format, and you could have a large group.”

Bean found that in-person events, such as an outdoor “ghost tour around campus” and a “pizza and games evening” often led to greater turnout and engagement among students. Kevin Le ’23, a UGA in the spring, said he organized similar outdoor “Boba hangouts” that were attended by groups of 10 to 12 students from East Wheelock House. 

Molly McQuoid ’23 recalled having a positive experience with her freshman year UGA prior to the pandemic. 

“He made sure to grab a meal each term with every person, so we got to know him one-on-one,” she said. “We had a really big hallway on our floor, and a lot of the time, he would just sit in the hallway and anyone could go over and chat with him. We would all wind up hanging out on the floor and really just sitting in the hallway for hours.”

When classes eventually moved to the remote format for the spring 2020 term, McQuoid said her UGA helped her through the transition, despite the challenges of the virtual format.

“One day, I think we did an online game, which was really fun,” McQuoid said. “I remember texting him about stuff, and even though we weren’t in person, I still felt like he was there for me and helping me finish up my freshman year.”

David Katz ’24 also shared positive experiences with a UGA from winter term and spring term 2021. When Katz’s close friend, Elizabeth Reimer ’24, died in May, his UGA, Kos Twum ’21, provided a shoulder for him to lean on. 

“When Elizabeth died, that night, [Twum] was with me the whole night, and she was just so comforting, and just so friendly those next few days,” he said. 

Katz said he was “struck” by Twum’s support and kindness through a difficult time.

“Obviously, this was a deep loss to her, too, but yet, she was still finding the strength in her to be there for me and the other people in the building,” he said.

As a UGA for freshmen in the spring, Le said he was especially concerned about the effects of social isolation on his residents’ mental health.

“I think a lot of the freshmen I had were still concerned about really being connected to what Dartmouth really is because of all the restrictions,” he said. “I was hypervigilant [about] making sure ... people just feel like they are supported and wanted in the community.”

Zoklat, who plans to be a UGA again next spring, said she is looking forward to being able to work with residents in person.

“I’ve always loved the way [UGAs] can create communities and be a part of communities,” she said. “I’m excited that we’re hopefully transitioning back to a more normal time with more interactions and more in-person events that we can do.”

Deputy director of residential education Jeffrey DeWitt wrote in an emailed statement that UGAs’ fundamental role — to foster a sense of community — will remain constant during the coming year.

“UGAs will welcome all students as the new year begins and help connect or reconnect them to the sense of community that typifies the Dartmouth experience, and they will be responsive and supportive to resident needs, just as they were last year and have been every year,” he wrote.