UNM freshmen find ways to avoid going at it alone

By Bodie “Bo” Russell / NM News Port 

They’ve joined The Pack, but now first-time UNM dorm residents are looking to each other — and to their advisors — in navigating strict housing guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic this fall. 

“Some of the new regulations include wearing a mask when not in your room or in the showers,” said AJ Frey, a senior and third-year Resident Advisor who has to monitor student compliance. “It’s obvious when someone isn’t wearing a mask.”

The University’s Resident Life & Student Housing 2020-2021 Handbook states that no guests from other dorms are permitted, barring residents from accessing other dorm buildings. Breaking this rule can result in a resident’s housing contract being canceled.

“The no guests from other buildings [rule] is easy to monitor in a small building like Santa Clara,” Frey said, referring to her assigned dorm. “It’s easy to recognize who actually lives in the building and who doesn’t.”    

On the upside, with fewer residents to oversee, Frey says, individual bonds are easier to build — not just on her floor, but throughout the building.

Despite this, she worries that most of the pressure this year is going to come from combatting “fear and isolation” residents may be feeling — especially among incoming freshmen. 

Unlike recent years, freshmen are not required to live on campus this year. The Freshman Residency Requirement was waived so incoming freshmen could decide what living situation would best suit their needs in light of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Savannah Sickler, a freshman living in Santa Clara hall, says the transition from home to campus was weird at first, but easier once she found a group of friends. 

“Usually we’re out and about either during the day or really late at night,” Sickler said. “Usually, when one or two people are out, the rest of us just flood out and congregate.”

Sickler and her friends were concerned about feeling confined while studying, so they sought alternatives to dorm rooms. She was excited that university libraries are reopening this month.

“It was hard for us to go somewhere that wasn’t so noisy, or to have someplace sturdy to put our books on,” she said. 

Lounges and common areas in dorms have had their furniture removed, making space for safe social distancing practices.

An empty lounge in the Laguna dorm, a common area usually populated with furniture and small groups of students. Photo by Bodie “Bo” Russell / NM News Port.

Like many others, Sickler has been forced to navigate her social life in new ways.  She tries to make conversation with anyone she may encounter on her floor, just to trying to spark a conversation.

“I only see one or two people a week in my hall,” she said.

That’s why she normally finds herself socializing with other residents around La Posada, the campus dining hall nestled between dorms.

“It’s nice to be able to text and be like ‘Hey! Who’s all out and about? Anyone want to go grab lunch?’” Sickler said. 

Most evenings, the surrounding grass berms and picnic tables are rife with small groups of residents chatting and eating now that the dining area is closed. Here, Sickler — and many other first-year residents —  discover new friends.

“As all of us were hanging out one night, we just kept adding new people to the group because a bunch of new people would come over and say ‘Hi’,” she said.

It’s unfortunate, Sickler says, that whenever things wind down or it gets cold outside, they’re not allowed to retreat to someone else’s dorm. 

This presents a common issue for first-year residents. On one hand, having no guests in dorms reduces the potential for COVID to spread in the dorms. On the other hand, though, the restrictions mean fewer opportunities to socialize through typical college-life experiences.

Unlike Sickler, some incoming freshmen decided to not to move away from home just yet.

Anthony Torres, a freshman living at home in Rio Rancho, says he feels like he’ll be missing out on the college experience this year by not living on campus, and laments the fact that he won’t be able to meet new people this year, “especially with online classes and not seeing people in person”.

With UNM’s primarily-online course offerings this semester, Torres decided to stay home until the time is right.  

“I played it by ear, and most of my classes are online, so I didn’t have a reason to move out quite yet,” he explained.

In the meantime, he says he sometimes feels stuck at home because many businesses are closed due to the public health orders in place. 

The silver lining? Torres says he now feels closer to family, “we’re talking a lot more, doing things more together as a family.”

On campus or off, COVID-19 has created an atmosphere of weariness, said Frey. But she’s still holding out hope.

“I think despite the pandemic, there is a lot of cautious optimism about this year,” Frey said. 

In Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s August 27th public health order, mass gatherings were allowed to grow from five to ten people, providing an opportunity to socialize with more people. That health order is in effect until September 18th.

Bodie “Bo” Russell is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. Follow @b0dier on Twitter.