Most freshmen spend a year sleeping, studying and socializing in a small dorm room, sometimes with a stranger for a roommate. After that year, some upperclassmen choose to return to their residence halls as student staff members (SSMs).
Upperclassmen who become Resident Advisors (RAs) or Peer Leaders (PLs) are expected to advise, mentor and keep their younger counterparts safe. Many of them do so because an older peer made an impact in their lives. However, few remain in their positions through graduation. Some don’t even last a year.
They are deterred by what they determine to be unhealthy living conditions, inadequate compensation and the refusal of administration to hear their complaints.
Last week, the Department of Housing and Residence Life eliminated 60 positions, telling students they were not welcome to return in the fall because the department was looking to cut down on SSM positions. Recent layoffs aside, some SSMs told the Technique that the department’s operation has long been known for its failure to support its student staff.
The Department of Housing has experienced a great deal of staff turnover in recent years. According to the organizational chart found at department.housing.gatech.edu/about, four of the highest positions on administration’s staff are currently vacant, with only one filled by an interim appointee — Sheree Gibson is filling the position of Interim Director for Residence Life.
Speaking about the issues with the Department of Housing was an emotional situation for current and former SSMs, and almost every person that was interviewed insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation from the Department.
Alexandra Marlette, fourth-year CM and former RA, was the only one willing to disclose her name. She became an RA in the Graduate Living Center in 2018, after transferring to Tech earlier that year. As an individual with fibromyalgia and an autoimmune disease, she was forced to live in a room that worsened her condition and made doing her
Marlette showed a video of the flooded floors in her room. According to Marlette, two previous RAs residing in that room said they had had the same issue — meaning the room had already been routinely wet and moldy for two years when she moved in.
“We’re at the front line of kids who are going through a crisis, or we’re staying up late handling emergencies, and things like that,” Marlette said. “And I go back to my room that I can’t live in. That’s my compensation.”
Marlette said she would have loved to stay in the position until she graduated. She liked giving back to the community, and the rent-free residence as compensation helped her afford school. In March, 2019, she moved out because her living conditions were dramatically worsening her medical issues. She said that she was the third SSM to leave her staff so far that semester.
Other SSMs have suffered negative health consequences due to their living conditions. An east campus PL has a severe allergy to dust and has made numerous complaints to both her direct superiors and the maintenance team. After changing her air filter, she was informed that there was nothing else that could be done.
Gibson said that “if a student comes to us needing an air purifier, we have some resources on hand that we will offer out to students to help them with that.”
The PL said that she was informed that one could not be provided to her. She purchased her own air purifier.
She remains living in a room that is making her sick. Her voice has grown raspy and hoarse. Unsanitary conditions were cited by several other SSMs and some provided photos and videos of mold growing on the furniture provided by housing.
One former east campus SSM said in an email that her floor was “plagued with plumbing issues so sewage water/actual human poop was overflowing onto the floor two or three times a week. We tried to tell our residents to not flush tampons/excessive amounts of paper, but I would witness toilets overflowing after flushing just a few pieces of toilet paper … wrote multiple maintenance requests, my co-PL and I made waves about it during staff meetings … and nothing happened.”
In addition to health concerns, certain SSMs have become worried for the safety and security of themselves and their residents.
Several east campus PLs shared that on two separate occasions in the fall semester of 2019, unauthorized individuals gained entrance to east campus dorms and violated the personal space and privacy of residents. Months later, security cameras were installed on some of the freshman dorms facing the highway. There were no Clery Act Safety Alerts for the incidents that had occurred that semester.
On Jan. 18, the campus community received a Clery Act Safety Alert regarding a student in the Perry Residence Hall who had been awoken to find a young man next to her bed. According to GTPD, the male fled when confronted.
“Additional students in Perry Residence Hall reported being awakened by a male in their unsecured rooms,” stated the alert. “The male has been identified as a student residing in the same housing area and has been placed under arrest.” The email went on to encourage students to lock their doors.
In addition to the responsibility to build community and respond to issues as they arise is the requirement that each staff member is “on duty” for a certain amount of time each month. These on-call hours require the staff to remain in their rooms unless they are responding to calls. They also require staff to perform patrols late at night. The number of rounds required in a 12-hour shift was recently upped to three.
“As a girl, you don’t want to be walking on Williams Street at one in the morning,” one PL said. “In the end, there’s nothing we can really do about it. If I say I’m gonna quit, housing is just like there are plenty of people lining up to take our spot. We have the free housing [held] over our heads. It’s like they always have something against us.” When talking to her hall director about her concerns about safety, she said that his response is that he has passed her concerns up and that “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Current and former SSMs reported a stark lack of communication from their superiors. One former PL stated that her supervisor had been let go at one point, but no communication was made to the staff. The SSMs reached out to the hall director with no success — she had been told not to make contact with the staff.
Emmett Miskell, third-year INTA and president of the Residence Hall Association, says poor communication is one of the issues he struggles to improve the most. Part of his job is to be the bridge between residents and the Department of Housing and to advocate for SSMs.
“There’s a lot of concern with communication,” Miskell said. “Any time I have a student staff member come to me and let me know about an issue, I do whatever I can because I do have those connections and those relationships built out with people.”
One current west campus SSM said that after some uproar surrounding last week’s layoffs and other changes, the Department of Housing told students that were laid off that they may reapply. An email from Kasey Helton, Associate Vice President of Campus Services, informed campus residents of plans to improve facilities, change the SSM positions, update the wok order system and update administrative staffing.
Another current PL explains why she hasn’t left her position.
“I have thought of quitting. But at the same time, I haven’t quit because I know that nothing’s going to happen. I am out of state, and as much as I do love doing it, it goes hand in hand with the free housing. It’s not the only reason why I do it, but it’s a big reason why I do it.”
Without the SSMs, on-campus residents, especially the first-years navigating life at Tech, would be left without a peer as their sounding board, advocate, center of community and friend.