Back in March, NYU undergraduate Ginele Tanis took a job as a resident assistant for this coming academic year, supervising a dorm and advising the students in it. She was excited to become an RA, having looked up to her own when she was living on campus. For Tanis, being an RA seemed like a good opportunity to build community with and give voice to her residents.

Then, a few days later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down New York City and her feelings about the assignment started to change. As the fall approached, she had second thoughts.

On August 5th she tweeted: “I can’t believe im gonna be an RA for NYU. No im not excited just annoyed,” the first of numerous tweets about being an RA at NYU.

Tanis and other prospective RAs had numerous concerns about whether they would be sufficiently protected from coronavirus. While university officials answered some of their questions, they weren’t able to answer all of them prior to accepting the role; some details about duties were still being hashed out by the administration.

On August 28th, Tanis met with two of her supervisors via Zoom. Tanis said she felt uncomfortable and intimidated by the supervisors’ response to concerns for low-income and Black students, and the tweets she had sent out were brought up. On the spot, she retracted her acceptance to the role and the university accepted her resignation.

“There were certain things that were not communicated well. Specifically, changes to the role like duty check-ins, changes to weekly hours, etc.” Tanis said.

Many of NYU’s roughly 300 resident assistants are Black or brown, immigrant, and/or low-income students who rely on the free housing and meals in order to attend NYU. (The full cost of room and board at the university is currently almost $20,000 a year.) And like Tanis, whose parents are from Haiti and who is the first of her family to go to college, some of them are reconsidering if the job is worth it this year.

NYU is the largest private university in Manhattan to reopen its residence halls for the fall semester. And the university says it is taking ample precautionary measures to curb coronavirus transmission, such as requiring all students to get tested when they arrive, reducing the number of students living in residence halls, and creating a COVID-19 prevention and response team.

“This situation is rapidly evolving,” Shonna Keogan, senior director of executive communications at NYU said in an email. “We’ve done our best to provide our [resident assistants] with information at the earliest point possible, while also assuring them that they are under no obligation to serve as RAs if it makes them uncomfortable in any way.”

Keogan also said the university had recently made several modifications to RA duties, such as no longer needing to accompany students needing urgent care to the hospital.

But those precautions have not been enough to reassure some RA’s. Some former NYU resident assistants formed an activist group RA Voices after RA responsibilities for the coming school year were altered. One sentence in the outline of expectations states that there will be no refunds or reimbursement in the event of closure before the end of the academic year.

That can change everything. Many potential RAs are concerned about a repeat of March 2020, when an abrupt shutdown left them scrambling for housing. Some relocated with friends; others moved back to their childhood homes, sometimes with at-risk family members.

“For them to include in our contract that we wouldn’t be receiving reimbursements in the event that the university closes due to a crisis, they’re avoiding responsibility for the fact that they would be displacing Black and brown students,” said Sarah Bacio, an RA Voices leader and final-year Global Public Health student.

“They’re failing to acknowledge there is a real financial need among the RA population,” Bacio said. She decided not to serve as a resident assistant again, citing her safety.

Other student leaders say if NYU closes, like other universities have already this month, it’s going to leave those first-generation and low-income RAs in an even more precarious situation.

“They are being uprooted from their role and the stability from that role, knowing you’re going to get housing and meal plan from that role, and then you’re put in a situation of uncertainty,” said Bianny Magarin, co-leader of NYU student group, First-Generation Low-Income Partnership.

In July, RA Voices launched a Change.org petition outlining questions and demands to better support resident assistants. As of September 2nd, the petition had over 650 signatures.

One specific demand from RA Voices is hazard pay for making duty rounds, which is when RAs survey the building for policy violations. In the past, these duty nights have required direct physical contact with students, including some who are intoxicated. The university states that these rounds may include handling “complex roommate conflicts, reports of sexual misconduct, and expressions of suicidal ideation.”

“Their plans are to reduce density in the dorms, to clean the elevators every fifteen minutes, and to not allow guests,” Bacio said. “I don’t think they’re realizing—actually I do think they realize it, but I don’t think they care—how much more complicated it is than that to coordinate thousands of students moving back into dorms.”

Another former RA, Kevin Suárez, said these uncertainties negatively affect students like him who are immigrants, first-generation college students, and low-income.

"I think often for students in our positions, [the expectation] is that we should be grateful to be in these institutions in the first place, making it in the first place,” Suárez said. “I’m hired because of my knowledge on first-generation students, low-income students, but then when it comes to protecting my life and protecting my financial security, I’m 'complaining.'"

Suárez also declined the RA role this year, citing safety concerns.

Discomfort with RA responsibilities is not new. Over the past few years, the role faced heavy criticism surrounding mental health incidents, and a former RA published a 40 page manifesto about inequities in the program called “An Analysis of the Treatment of Resident Assistants in New York University’s Office of Residential Life and Housing Services.”

As a Black, low-income, first-generation college student and child of immigrants, Tanis was disappointed she couldn’t serve as a mentor for her new residents. She plans on paying for NYU housing now, using scholarships and loans to support her life on campus.

“NYU prides itself in having resources, for mental health and stuff, but it gets to a certain point...If we’re constantly voicing concerns and getting shut down, it’s not great at all.”

Sabeena Singhani is a Feet in 2 Worlds Elections Journalism Fellow. She is a graduate of NYU and a former resource center assistant, a role similar to resident assistant.