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About a month ago, the Nevada Sagebrush was approached by a student staff member of the residence halls with stories of their treatment, experiences and more. They also had a number of former and current staff and residents willing to come forward to share their own experiences of living and working in the residence halls. During weeks of interviews with numerous sources, the Sagebrush also requested documents from the university regarding the budget for the residence halls, which we received.
Once interviews with student staff and residents were concluded, the Nevada Sagebrush emailed all professional staff members of the Residential Life on Monday, Feb. 25, requesting an interview for Friday, March 1. The Sagebrush sat down with the student-led Residence Hall Association president, her advisor and the director of Residential Life, who joined the interview over the phone.
The Sagebrush used university census data and a list of STEM programs accepted into Great Basin Hall to determine how many students belonged to STEM at the university. We used data compiled by our sources on schools the RHA was modeled after to compare compensation in similar positions at other schools. All of the data is public record and published on the respective school’s website.
The Nevada Sagebrush granted anonymity to sources who currently work in the residence halls as Residence Assistants or Academic Mentors as they are not allowed to talk to the press, according to their contract agreement. If they are identified, they face the potential penalty of paying back the room and board the university compensates for them, as well as losing their job. Former staff members and current residents were asked to go on the record because the Sagebrush did not feel as if they would face harmful retaliation. Jerome Maese, Director of Residential Life, said he would give clearance to students who wanted to talk to the Sagebrush should they choose to disclose their identity and go on the record.
Last Fall, the University of Nevada, Reno, opened a new residence hall, Great Basin, aimed at students in STEM — Science, Technology, Education and Math — programs. The hall has different study spaces inside, including an engineering work spot, to accommodate the projects these students often need to work on for their classes. Nearly 40 percent of the university’s undergraduate students belong to a STEM program, according to university census data.
Student staff members and residents in the other halls have expressed concern over staff treatment and resource distribution within all the residence halls, which they say has been unequal, especially since the opening of Great Basin. This includes taking resources from other halls and giving it to Great Basin.
RESOURCES & PROBLEMS IN RESIDENCE HALLS
Residents and student staff alike voiced concern regarding physical aspects of the residence halls. These include lack of furniture items, exposed pipes, broken elevators and faulty heating systems.
In the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, residents reported not having chairs in several rooms of Nye Hall. According to a current student staff member, the Department took the chairs from the rooms of Nye Hall and moved them to Great Basin Hall. The same staff member reported Nye Hall residents did not have their chairs replaced until mid-October, and when he inquired about when the residents would receive the chairs, he was told by a professional staff member in the department they were “SOL, [sh** out of luck].”
The department did not confirm nor deny this claim, and encouraged any students missing furniture to submit a maintenance request with their residence hall’s front desk to get furniture replacements. They also said they hoped a professional staff member would not say something like that to a student, and never received a report about the incident.
“I live in Great Basin and I hope they didn’t take things away from them for Great Basin because that’s not fair and not equitable,” Residence Hall Association President Serena Phan said. “If this was a problem, I’d hope residents know we hold Leadership Council meetings in every hall once a week. Nye residents have the opportunity to talk to their leaders and those leaders could expressed their concerns to our general council on Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m.”
Residents voiced concerns about exposed pipes in the residence halls, specifically in older buildings. The pipes are for the fire sprinkler system. However, they are sensitive and if they are touched, they can break and flood the residence hall, which has occurred before.
“If those pipes burst, it could be 60 year old water all over the building — that’s what they tell us during floor meetings,” Nye Hall resident Calista Lacy said. “If you even put tape on them and an RA sees them, they will write you up if you don’t take it off.”
The water inside the pipes pushes 50 gallons a minute, meaning the bursting of the pipes could cause severe water damage to the building, Director of Housing Facilities Bill Jacques. However, the Residential Life department is not allowed to touch the pipes due to federal law, and only the fire marshall can open them to see the state of the water within them.
Lounge furniture, proposal
Students and staff have called study spaces in Nye Hall inadequate due to lack of or poor quality furniture, white boards and tables. Residents have reported back problems due to the furniture, according to a student staff member. Student staff members submitted a furniture proposal for Nye Hall’s lounges in July 2018 for $5,400 for new chairs. Currently, Nye residents are using white board paper in the study areas instead of real white boards that are available in other halls.
“I understand why the department wants to spend more money there [in academically focused halls], but when we have safety problems — like people are actually having pain bending over studying in our halls — it kind of necessitates that they spend some money there,” a current staff member said.
The furniture proposal was denied, according to the staff member. Jerome Maese, Director of Residential Life, claims the furniture in Nye’s floor lounges were replaced approximately three years ago — before the proposal was issued. Currently, communal study areas in Nye include lounges on every floor and a conference room on the first floor.
According to Lacy, some residents are forced to choose to live in dorms such as Nye over academic centered halls such as the Living Learning Community or Great Basin because of the price, but still want to focus on their academics and have appropriate study areas.
For the 2018-2019 academic year, it costs $5,580 to live in a Nye double while it costs $7,150 for a double and $6,190 for a triple in Great Basin. Prices are rising next academic year to adjust for inflation, and a triple room in Great Basin will cost the same as a double because the rooms were designed for three people and have as much room per student as a double, according to Maese.
According to the FY19 Housing Budget, Residential Life spent more than $4,200,000 on Great Basin and over $4,300,000 in Nye Hall. However, Great Basin houses 400 students compared to Nye’s 550, and $10,550 was spent per Great Basin student compared to $7,865 per Nye Hall student.
Maese said the Residential Life department is a non-profit, and while they budget for certain resources, if the money is not there, the department does not spend it. The department receives money from student fees, summer conferences and more to make up their budget.
Residents voiced dissatisfaction with elevators and laundry machines in the residence halls, claiming they break down often and go out of service.
“The elevators in Nye and Argenta break frequently,” Lacy said. “Even in Great Basin, elevators are breaking.”
Bill Jacques from the Department of Housing said the elevators and laundry frequently go out of service due to misuse by students. According to Jacques, students often overfill the laundry machines, causing them to break. The most common reason for broken elevators is students jumping in them, which triggers an earthquake sensor, stopping operation completely, according to Assistant Director Toby Toland.
Toland also clarified that if there is an emergency with the elevators — such as students being stuck in them or an accessibility issue for disabled students living in the halls — elevator maintenance is dispatched immediately. However, if one elevator breaks over the weekend and the other works, maintenance will be dispatched during the following week.
Lacy also said the laundry machines have mold-like substances in them. The department said they had no report of mold in the laundry machines and encouraged students to file a maintenance request if they see things of this nature. Lacy claims she has filed maintenance requests for different issues multiple times and hasn’t always been followed up with.
All residence halls are reported to have heating systems throughout the halls, according to the Department of Housing. However, Lacy reports the heating frequently does not work in her room in Nye Hall.
“There is heating, but it doesn’t work,” Lacy said. “If you close the window because you’re cold, there’s no ventilation so it just stinks in there.”
Overall, residents do not feel as if they are being heard by the department or by the student-led RHA.
“The way they treat students and our concerns and our issues is so genuinely upsetting,” Lacy said. “It’s not just staff they’re bad to.”
Resident assistants, or RAs, are non-freshmen students in the residence halls who are assigned to a specific floor to help students with a variety of situations as they transition into college and live on campus. They are responsible for rounds to frequently check on student activity in the halls, desk duties, programming events and more. However, current and former RAs feel as if the job they signed up for is not the job they actually do, and were not prepared for the situations they have to deal with. Additionally, some do not believe their compensation is high enough for the job they do.
All student staff members are required to come back weeks before the fall semester starts for training — including but not limited to Title IX, safety procedures and more. RAs and other staff members are compensated with free room and board, as well as the opportunity to pick up 10 hours of extra, paid desk hours paying $8.25 an hour. Students are not allowed by the university to work more than 20 hours a week, including their RA duties and extra shifts, but some say they do because they need the money for outside expenses, or they have no choice.
Some student staff employees work places besides their own residence halls in an effort to make extra money.
“I started working at the D.C. and working at the desk,” former RA Alejandro Del-Cid said. “They aren’t under the same company so I was able to get away with it, but I needed to because I needed the money at that time. But from what I’ve heard, they can reprimand you.”
Some student staff members feel the compensation for their jobs in Residential Life is disproportionate to the professional staff.
“I feel like student staff in general are just not paid well,” a current academic mentor said. “You look at all the higher ups’ salaries, and then student staff get room and board and 10 meals a week in the D.C.”
Compared to other schools the current system is based off of, student staff workers feel they are being undercompensated for their work. At the university, student staff are given a $9,200 housing equivalent to cover room and board, and the extra desk hours as a form of compensation. They are required to work other desk shifts, rounds and work weekends and holidays. A current student staff worker said while the university’s room and board coverage is high compared to other schools, it is because they charge more due to the high cost of living in the area.
At UNLV, RAs are compensated with just over $5,000 for their room and board, and receive $200 a month for outside expenses. They do not have desk shifts and remain on-call during their time on duty. They are also allowed to work outside their RA duties for up to 12 hours a week.
Job over academics
Resident assistants expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of hours worked. Del-Cid said he felt that when he wasn’t in class, he was working. Other current staff members reported being told to put their jobs over their academics.
“No one should ever be telling our students that,” Maese said. “We work really hard to support our students and our student staff’s academic success…We are 110 percent committed to their academic success.”
Del-Cid and other student staff members have reported being woken up in the middle of the night to handle commotion between residents or work a desk shift if an overnight worker cannot or does not show up, including nights before exams. The residence halls all have 24-hour front desks that need to be manned at all times.
Del-Cid said this affected his academics and GPA. RAs need to maintain a 2.7 GPA in their position as a model of academic success to their residents. Del-Cid said it isn’t possible to do all of it at once.
A current student staff member expressed frustration with the department due to the cap placed on credits allowed to be taken. Staff members are allowed to take up to 17 credits, and can take more with approval from the Residential Life department. The student staff member said they were not approved to take extra credits, even though it affected their graduation date.
“I cannot afford to take that class a different semester,” they said. “That would require paying for housing again, that would require me to pay for the credits.”
Emotional follow up
Both current and former academic mentors and RAs shared experiences with traumatic situations with residents, including sexual assault, suicidal thoughts and intoxicated residents.
RAs and AMs are required to have weekly meetings with their supervisors, in which the supervisor checks with the student staff member to ensure they are alright, according to Maese.
“Once a week a supervisor meets with them,” Maese said. “We also have them do weekly reports about how they’re doing and what’s going on. We try to offer support that way. I think part of it is they don’t necessarily know what they need until they are dealing with situations like that. They don’t necessarily know what tools are available to them. Things like that can be really traumatic and really stressful so they need support too.”
Student staff undergo evaluations several times a year. RAs and AMs reported “favoritism” and “cliquiness” among the staff, meaning some got lower ratings on their evaluations without explanation.
“Everybody who was in the ‘clique’ got superior ratings, while a lot of us who did the majority of the work while others were slacking around receiving average,” Del-Cid said. “We weren’t given a reason why. I don’t know how others were able to better if I was doing their job.”
All student staff members who spoke to the Nevada Sagebrush said there is a favoritism or hierarchy among the halls, and how they are treated depends on which hall they live in.
“I’ve been in buildings where we just didn’t get resources,” a staff member said. “I’m in a building where people complain about things and it’s like ‘you have it pretty good here’. In the new buildings, you are given favoritism. You are the shiny beacon on the hill that are given the resources.”
Student staff also said the halls are treated differently because of their academic success — Nye Hall has a cumulative GPA of 2.9 while the LLC has a 3.2. However, halls with higher GPAs are often given more resources to be academically successful, including better study spaces and more academic mentors, according to current and former staff members.
“The LLC has always been elevated to its own standard,” Del-Cid said. “With those heightened GPAs, they definitely have a lot more resources. How come the LLC is our standard if they have all the resources, but everyone else is supposed to try to catch up if they don’t have those resources?”
Each residential hall has at least one academic mentor in their hall to assist residents with their academic needs, almost like a live-in tutor. However, they are not equally distributed among the halls based on population.
“We don’t want to supply a lot of academic mentors where there isn’t a huge demand,” Maese said. “The students in the LLC and STEM majors utilize academic mentors a lot, which is great.”
Maese also stressed the need to balance staff and residents, as more staff can mean less residents.
“However, when you bring on an academic mentor, you’re taking off two beds for a potential resident,” Maese said. “We have to balance the supply of beds with the supply of staff rooms.”
One academic mentor serves 570 students in Peavine Hall, as well as one for 750 students in Argenta Hall and one in Nye Hall. Three AMs oversee Great Basin’s 400 students and four AMs serve 320 students in the Nevada Living Learning Community.
Sierra Hall’s AM left at the end of fall 2018 and has yet to be replaced. The position remained vacant due to lack of candidates for it, according to Toland. Juniper Hall and Canada Hall currently do not have AMs.
AMs also do outreach hours in halls they do not live in to make up for the lack of AMs in other halls.
In addition to unequal distribution, AMs are required to go to an extra meeting a week, and often help with RA duties when it comes to maintenance, resident support and desk duty. One AM said when something breaks in a bathroom or a mess is made by a resident in the hall, it is protocol for him to fix or clean the issue.
Although student staff members have grievances with the department and some aspects of their job, all of them agree they enjoy their work and their residents.
“I absolutely love my job, but I can’t do it another year,” a current student member said.
Madeline Purdue contributed to this report.
Olivia Ali can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @OliviaNAli.