August 24, 2020
Although the pandemic has altered a lot of life, Wheaton’s Residence Life is staying true to its mission of cultivating transformative Christ-centered communities.
In all of Dr. Justin Heth’s 18 years working in Residence Life, he’s never once had to think about social distancing and masking. Rather, his mission as Wheaton’s Dean of Residence Life has been to "cultivate transformative Christ-centered communities."
But these last six months have proved a little different.
"The core of residence life is building connections and relationships," Heth said. "We’ve really had to get creative on building floor communities and one-on-one relationships through the distance that a mask creates."
Pushing the Inside Out
One of the big ways Residence Life is working to create community during the pandemic is by pushing some of the events or activities that once took place indoors outside.
For instance, floor meetings, gatherings of anywhere from 25 to 55 residents and their resident assistants (RAs), which are a cornerstone of the Residence Life program at Wheaton, would normally take place in a Res Hall floor lounge. During these meetings, RAs would discuss community functions on the floor and what opportunities are available for students to get connected, like Bro-Sis floor gatherings, discipleship ministries, and floor fellowship times. But with social distancing guidelines, many of the lounge spaces and floors are too small to accommodate several dozen students, so RAs might take these meetings outdoors or in larger classrooms.
New this year and in close walking distance to the residence halls are fire pits, large tents, and Adirondack chairs all aimed at providing safe spaces for students to gather.
Some of the one-on-one or small-group hangouts that might happen in close quarters—across a lounge table or in a room, for example—can now happen at those outdoors gathering spots or on a socially distanced walk.
Rethinking Room Layouts
The Residence Life team has also worked with Wheaton Facilities on coming up with the best ways to optimize the space that the residence halls do offer.
"We’ve gotten creative with pushing couches against walls and spacing other seating out to best utilize the space, so students can safely gather," he said.
Along with common spaces, the Residence Life team in coordination with the Wheaton Fall Planning Group, has also figured out best practices for staying safe in residence hall rooms themselves. For instance, within the room, roommates who are functioning as family units, can enjoy the release of literally removing their masks when they’re together. “That authentic face-to-face community is important,” Heth said.
Fellow students are allowed in the rooms too if everyone is masked, and the team has determined that two-person rooms can safely accommodate two guests, while four-person rooms can accommodate four visitors.
Rising to the Challenge
Heth is also encouraged by the excitement of his new class of RAs, which joined him on campus a couple of weeks ago for Student Leadership Training. Not only have they done a great job adapting to social distancing and masking guidelines, but they’ve brought a hopeful spirit with them.
"I’ve been really pleased by the excitement and energy of our RAs and their excitement for welcoming new students," Heth said.
In normal years, RAs host a weekly "in-night" where the RA is available for students to pop in and connect. They’re also encouraged to plan floor activities with a brother or sister floor, as well as plan weekly or bi-weekly community times. Although COVID-19 makes planning these events and activities a bit trickier, Heth said, "I’m excited to see the new and creative ways they will continue to building community, which Wheaton has been known for."
Ultimately, he hopes that both students and parents alike are reassured that Residence Life at Wheaton is staying the course even in these unprecedented times.
"Our purpose is still the same—our core of building connection, helping students experience a sense of belonging, supporting and challenging students to live out the body of Christ—is our continued mission this year," he said. "We’re just going to do it socially distanced and through a mask the best way we can."—Emily Bratcher