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RCAs and PAAs struggle with zee engagement in a virtual semester

<h5>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h5>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

For many first-years, residential college advisers (RCAs) and peer academic advisors (PAAs) take on the role of mentor and friend, snack plug and course scheduling wizard, rule enforcer and confidante — all while balancing the everyday responsibilities that come with being a Princeton student themselves. And in a virtual semester, these responsibilities have only grown, leading to a change in compensation for both PAAs and RCAs.

The online semester has drastically changed the way in which residential college advisors approach their role. Whereas in normal years RCAs might simply see their zees — short for “advisees” — in the dining hall or knock on their doors, it is more difficult to build a sense of community when students are scattered across the globe.

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“I need to catch the Californians but I also need to catch people in Southeast Asia, East Asia — so it's like a 13-hour time difference between my earliest zee and my latest zee,” Butler RCA Raphael Njoku ’22 said. “As you can imagine, trying to juggle them all is a bit tough.”

Even more challenges come with a lack of proximity. RCAs and PAAs both agree that Zoom inhibits productive conversations and friendship-building.

“If I think about my own zee group, I met some of my closest friends by just living near each other, seeing each other, going to zee group things together,” Butler PAA Amy Jeon ’21 said. “I don't know if that's happening somewhere that I’m not seeing it but … I think you need [spaces] to be unstructured for it to be conducive to those kinds of friendships."

Despite the limitations of Zoom, many RCAs have done their best to recreate the zee group experience through weekly study breaks. Without the lure of food, the thought that goes into planning study breaks exceeds what, in a normal year, may have just been leading a quick trip to Wawa. RCAs have tried everything from virtual escape rooms to self-care calls, where they shipped their zees tea samplers and hopped on a call to unwind with face masks. 

But the amount of time spent planning study breaks often doesn’t align with the rate of return from zees. The RCAs interviewed have overwhelmingly reported that attendance has plummeted since the beginning of the semester, reaching as low as one or even no zees. 

“I had one study break that was mandatory,” Njoku recalled. “I sent out emails, put it in the GroupMe, I even sent them a calendar invite … and still, nobody came.”

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Njoku is not alone. Nearly every RCA and PAA has had an experience waiting in a Zoom room in the hopes that a tardy zee will show their face, if only to say hello.

“Sometimes we have nobody show up, so it's just me and the other PAA hanging out there for 20 minutes hoping somebody drops in,” Whitman PAA Seema Gupta ’22 said. 

For RCAs and PAAs who were initially driven by their desire to be a resource for first-years struggling to adjust to both college and a virtual semester, the lack of attendance can, at times, feel discouraging.

“Some of the expectations I had at the beginning about being there for zees, getting to know them really well — I think that might’ve been a little overly optimistic,” Rocky PAA Francesca Block ’22 admitted.

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Block is a Features writer for The Daily Princetonian.

The unwillingness of certain zees to attend isn’t entirely new.

“Sometimes, and even in normal years, you just have zees that just don't care about the zee group interactions,” Butler RCA Scott Overbey ’21 said. “I think this year, that’s especially prevalent.”

In light of the difficulty of corralling zees to a single study break call, many RCAs have turned to one-on-one sessions to reach the first-years who may not be responsive to larger group calls. While these interactions have proven to be more rewarding, they are also significantly more time-consuming for RCAs. 

That being said, even when reaching out to individuals, responses are sometimes difficult to get.

“Even when I reach out to a specific person, [there’s] a 50 percent chance I get a response,” Njoku said. “Maybe when they see the RCA brackets on an email they’re like, ah, delete,” he continued with a laugh.

But for the most part, RCAs and PAAs don’t hold this against their zees. Many of them are cognizant of the fact that these students are caught up in adjusting to a virtual first-year fall.

“I think back to when I was a freshman, getting an email from someone who I don’t really know,” Gupta said. “The odds that I responded were kind of slim, so I get where they’re coming from."

Overbey echoed these sentiments, adding that a virtual semester presents even more obstacles. “I respect that my Zoom study breaks just add on to the time they have to be on Zoom anyways,” he said. 

Despite the setbacks and Zoom fatigue associated with being an RCA or PAA, the small meaningful interactions with first-years make the added responsibilities worth it.

“The most encouraging thing [just happened],” Njoku recalled. “One of my zees reached out to me and asked for my advice on picking courses … I cleared up my whole schedule, I said ‘give me a time,’ and jumped on a Zoom call.” 

For Njoku, who estimated that his zees had only asked him a total of 15 questions since the school year began, it meant a lot when one of his first-years turned to him for guidance. 

“One thing I really wish they knew is that engaging with them and interacting with my zees brings me happiness as well,” he explained. “It’s not quite work and Zoom fatigue for me to set up stuff for my zees … them coming to zee group meetings and stuff like that, it actually energizes me a little bit more.”

This sentiment is shared by RCAs and PAAs alike. Even if their zees may not show up to their study breaks, RCAs and PAAs will always be there for them as a resource or even as a friend.

“This sounds really weird, but when my zees text me, I feel really validated,” Block said, laughing. “When they reach out and I’m able to help them … those are the most positive moments.”

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