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New Normal: A U Of Michigan Resident Advisor On Strike

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now for our regular segment exploring the new school year and a New Normal. This week, what happens when student leaders are at odds with their employers, the university. Today's story comes from Soneida Rodriguez.

SONEIDA RODRIGUEZ: As a first-generation college student, I was incredibly intimidated coming to a campus like U of M. Entering, like, a small city, which is what the campus felt like, was, you know, really overwhelming.

MARTIN: U of M - that's the University of Michigan. Soneida is a senior now and thriving. She's an RA, a resident advisor.

RODRIGUEZ: RAs are - you know, they're not just like safety police or like robo-cops. They really are meant to mentor you and help give you advice.

MARTIN: The job covers her housing and food costs, and Soneida takes the responsibilities seriously. That's why in this pandemic, she and many other RAs have started raising concerns with the administration over the university's health and safety policies.

RODRIGUEZ: One of the administrators repeatedly said that attempting to provide widespread testing across the campus was not realistic. And in my mind, that became a turning point because if providing widespread testing, which is needed to ensure the safety of campus and prevent an outbreak, is not realistic, then why on earth was bringing people back to campus ever even considered a possibility?

MARTIN: But it's not just testing Soneida is concerned about. She believes that while some of the student health and safety policies sound good on paper, they're difficult to implement and enforce, especially in the dorms with their kitchens, bathrooms and common spaces.

RODRIGUEZ: Everything is kind of centered around sharing. And the fact that there wasn't more effort on the university to maybe, you know, lock down these spaces, remove the furniture, like, take more actual steps to actually shut these down and prevent people from utilizing them was concerning.

MARTIN: And as an RA, when Soneida tries to enforce the school's policies, she has only one trick up her sleeve.

RODRIGUEZ: A lot of what RAs in the past have relied on is, you know, kind of the power of the bluff. You know, we ask our residents, like, you need to come to this hall meeting. It's mandatory. But there are really no consequences, and we don't have any, like, repercussion system for not following certain measures like that.

MARTIN: Soneida says the RAs are feeling helpless and unsafe, so many of them decided to strike, along with members of the graduate students union.

RODRIGUEZ: I have not been filling out my reports for my job that are supposed to indicate that I'm actually engaging with residents.

MARTIN: Soneida said she and the others won't go back to work until their demands are met for things like regular access to testing and sufficient personal protective equipment. The president of the university acknowledges the strike but has yet to respond to their demands. Tomorrow, the RAs will vote on whether to send a renewed set of demands to the administration.

RODRIGUEZ: There was no pandemic playbook. You know, there was no instruction guide for, how do you stand up to a university who is not prioritizing public health? But despite that uncertainty, working with my peers, I quickly found that, you know, we don't need a guide. In the face of unprecedented challenges, we can be the difference.

MARTIN: That was Soneida Rodriguez, a resident adviser at the University of Michigan on her New Normal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.