Although COVID-19 has forced students to keep the residence hall doors of Lawther Hall closed, there are still signs of life taped to hallways in the form of small, origami creations of Baby Yoda.

The characters, from the television series “The Mandalorian,” were created during an origami-folding grab-and-go event, one of several efforts of the dorm’s nine resident assistants to bring students together during a global pandemic that is forcing everyone to stay apart.

“I think just seeing other people's creations creates that sense of community,” said Dylan Haase, a senior strategic public relations major who is one of Lawther Hall’s RAs. “It shows that we have shared experiences, even if we're all in our own individual rooms and behind masks all the time.”

Two RAs interviewed by InsideUNI said that students, who are strongly motivated to remain on campus, are following public health guidelines, wearing masks inside and observing limits on visitors. Bringing students together and going out of their way to connect with students during COVID-19 has been a singular challenge for RAs across campus.

“Meeting people, especially residents meeting each other, is a lot more difficult this year,” said Laura Stanish, a senior leisure, youth and human services major who is an RA in Campbell Hall.  “And so the kind of camaraderie you'd normally have has definitely gone down.”

To combat this new normal, both Haase and Stanish have taken advantage of the warm weather at the start of the semester to hold outdoor events, where students are safe to take off their masks as long as they maintain social distancing requirements.

Stanish organized a campus-wide game of hide and seek, as well as a socially distanced picnic using take-out meals from the Dining Center. Haase said Lawther Hall has held outdoor yoga sessions.

“As students continue to adjust to the new normals created by COVID-19, we are thrilled with the innovative efforts of our Resident Assistant Team to engage our students and create a sense of community in our residence halls,” said Nick Rafanello, UNI Director of Residence Life. “I also want to thank our students for their continued adherence to mask and social distancing guidelines allowing us to keep our students on campus.”

But both RAs know the weather won’t hold and have turned their attention to hosting virtual events, often through Kahoot, a popular platform featuring user-generated multiple-course quizzes. Haase organized a game centered on pop culture music, video games and music.

“It was a good way to give people a break from their studies and have an event that they could enjoy from the comfort of their rooms, while still having some sense of competition and camaraderie,” Haase said.

But beyond creatively building community, RAs have assumed an important role in students’ mental health. With COVID-19 sparking an uptick of students reporting concerns related to their mental health, RAs have found that sometimes the most valuable thing they can offer students is a simple daily greeting.

“A big thing is just saying hello to people, and acknowledging that they're there,” Haase said. “Even just having a simple conversation about something like a TV show can mean a lot to a person who's had several Zoom classes in their room throughout the day and hasn't really spoken to a person one-on-one.”

And although the situation has been challenging, both RAs agreed that students are mostly happy complying with the new rules in order to stay on campus.

“I think it's pretty frustrating for everyone, but I think students are taking it very well and being very respectful of those boundaries and new rules,” Stanish said. “In my circles, we've all been able to adapt, and so it's been really good for building skills in adaptability and flexibility.”

The RAs have also gotten a boost from the Department of Residence, which recently was one of three schools in the nation to be recognized with the Assessment and Impact Award for Residence Life from Skyfactor Benchworks, a Macmillan Learning Company. The award recognizes colleges that have successfully used data to analyze and make changes to better their residence life programs.

Among other achievements, UNI was singled out for its use of data in efforts to modify existing spaces to improve the lives of students, including adding mixed-use spaces that can accommodate socially distanced studying.