The Life of Senior Housing Officers During the Pandemic

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Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant disruptions in the college and university student housing industry. Not only have these disruptions been financial in nature, but have also changed the essence of how we accomplish our work, particularly related to interacting with our staff and students on campus. Despite the innumerous personal and professional challenges faced during the pandemic, senior housing officers (SHOs) throughout the United States have persevered with poise, grace, and a dedication to servant leadership. Through various virtual opportunities to connect with my fellow SHOs over the past year, it is evident that we all are experiencing the most challenging time of our professional careers. However, there have been wonderful stories of resilience and, teamwork, and leadership during this time.

I decided to reach out to my network of SHOs to ask them to reflect on the work that they have accomplished over the past year and how they feel the COVID-19 pandemic will forever impact and change our industry. Six colleagues from across the nation working at varying types of institutions shared their thoughts with me. I am delighted to share their thoughts with you as they offer prime examples of servant leadership, humility, hope, and steadfast resilience.

What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

This experience reinforced the value of self-care and finding creative outlets is a necessity for me to manage stress. I realized as a leader that to continue to build trust with my team and that transparency goes a long way. I recognize that despite the conditions at the university that I need to strive to create the optimal work environment for my team. I am continuing to learn from my team what I need to do for them to provide the support and leadership they need to be successful and manage the environmental conditions at our university and in the world. – Shana Alston, Temple University

I definitely learned that I am more resilient than I gave myself credit for. There have been multiple times where I have felt beaten down and that I didn’t have another ounce to give. Then another challenge or opportunity came and I realized that there were a lot of folks counting on the work that our team could accomplish. So we picked ourselves up and moved on. As an SHO, I’d say that I learned that we have to be OK with “breaking” some of the rules sometimes in hard situations. In housing, in particular, we can sometimes feel bound to processes and policies. We need to remember always that processes and policies are intended to serve us and not the other way around. – Dr. Stephen Jenkins, Oregon State University

The opportunity to learn has stimulated my brain in an academic way that I have not felt sense my grad school days. – Dr. Derek Jackson, Kansas State University

I have learned that I am generally an optimist. I can see the bright side of things even when things seem grim. I have also learned that I am a pretty good manager (I can get things done) and a pretty good leader (I can inspire people to perform well).  My lowest point was when I momentarily lost my optimism. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who helped me find it again. I also learned that I don’t mind working a few days from home. I definitely have the discipline to separate my work life from my home life even if they are in the same place. I guess I owe that balance to my early days as a live-in staff member. – Dr. Vicka Bell-Robinson, Miami University (OH)

During the 2020 spring when it seemed like everyone went home to work and I was still coming to the office, I realized that I loved the solitude of campus. How the animals came out to explore: coyotes, skunks, foxes, possums, rats, etc. Also found out that the community loved campus being so quiet so that they could run their dogs, teach their kids how to ride bikes, to skateboard, to roller skate. It was entertaining to think back to the days of teaching my kids to ride a bike. However, I also discovered that the “I” of introvert has its limits as my new best friends were the landscaping or trash crew – anyone to talk to! – Jill Eckardt, Texas Woman’s University

This past year, one thing I learned about myself was that I’m able to handle more than I ever thought I could. Being an SHO, starting work on a doctoral degree, and dealing with the loss of several family members throughout the year, all during a global pandemic was tough; it made for the most difficult year of my life. To be honest, I still don’t know how I got through it all, but I did. I learned I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was. – Steven Couras, Curtis Institute of Music

What have you been most proud of?

I’m proud of how our team was responsive, nimble and managed each new challenge was grace and creativity. I am truly grateful for my team and my colleagues. They have been positive, student-centered and solutions-oriented in the mist of personal and national crisis. The level of professionalism assures me that we have the right people on our team. – Shana Alston, Temple University

Our team has worked so hard to maintain employment for most of our staff and to preserve our core capacity to serve residents not just now but into the future. This took a lot of creativity and flexibility along with the willingness to challenge the status quo of how we did our business. It also required us to push the institution as a whole to shift to different ways of thinking about how to do business. In the end, we will have been stretched and exhausted but I believe we ultimately will come out better and stronger at the end of this. – Dr. Stephen Jenkins, Oregon State University

My team is tremendous and performed well under pressure. – Dr. Derek Jackson, Kansas State University

I have been really proud of my team. They have all worked very hard, and for the most part, they haven’t complained a whole lot. This is especially true for my central team. I am amazed at their resilience and feel very fortunate to work with them. I have also been proud of our ability to pivot and support other portions of the university. I’m glad that we continued to be seen as a value add even when the buildings were empty. – Dr. Vicka Bell-Robinson, Miami University (OH)

I’ve been most proud of the Housing & Dining team; they took every request and every pivot in stride. Despite how they or their reduced staff were feeling, they kept up a brave face and did whatever needed to be done to get students into quarantine / isolation spaces, delivering meals, learning to program virtually, or figuring out how to unmute : )  They were troopers! – Jill Eckardt, Texas Woman’s University

I’m most proud of myself for taking the leap and pursuing an Ed.D. this past year. It’s something I have put off for a couple of years but finally started working on. As a first gen American and college graduate, it’s important for me to show other first gen students that they too can do it; the road for us might look a little different at times but it doesn’t mean a college education is not obtainable.  – Steven Couras, Curtis Institute of Music

How will the COVID-19 pandemic forever change your work and / or the industry / field of Housing & Residence Life?

This is a challenging question to answer. I hope we reimagine who is and what it means to be essential staff. I hope we redesign the RA role and what student engagement means. It is my hope that universities will consider different educational delivery methods to make it more accessible and affordable to more students. I am concerned with the cost of university housing and meal plans and what that means for our overall viability as an industry. We need to consider also how we design our housing that allows our inventory to be accommodating and flexible when we encounter situations such as these while not severely negatively impacting our fiscal bottom line.

About eight years ago, I was involved in a programmatic conversation about a new residence hall for sophomore students and we discussed the idea of pods and convertible walls. We discussed how this design would allow us to make communities or pods larger or smaller as needed (to accommodate learning communities or roommate clusters) and to reduce rooms from doubles to singles or to design spaces to provide more privacy. We discussed designing more bathrooms to reduce the student to bath ratios. All of these concepts would have made our work far easier to manage during the pandemic.  We need to reconsider those options for future facilities. – Shana Alston, Temple University

Our dining director often says that “Miracles I can do. The impossible takes some time.” We have accomplished the impossible over the past 10 months in what we have accomplished. What I hope changes is that institutions realize the impossible position that many have placed their housing and dining operations in through their extractive practices of over-assessing auxiliaries to fund central operations. This left many operations without the financial reserves necessary to effectively weather this storm. The pandemic should cause every institution to rethink their financial practices to create more resilient and responsible institutions. – Dr. Stephen Jenkins, Oregon State University

Communicable disease will be a much greater issue as we work to provide safe places for students and staff. – Dr. Derek Jackson, Kansas State University

I really feel like, if I can face a pandemic and still really enjoy my job, I’ve definitely picked the right career. I’ve told a few people “even in a pandemic, I choose this work. If I have to be in a pandemic, I might as well be in university housing.” I know that I have been communicating more with the schools in my state. I am hopeful that we will continue to regularly connect with each other when this is over. I am hopeful that we will be better able to identify what is important about the residential experience and what we can let go of. I also think that we are more aware that where students live while they are in college matters for a whole host of reasons. This isn’t just related to residence life. Having proximity to campus and being able to use campus resources helps students thrive. – Dr. Vicka Bell-Robinson, Miami University (OH)

Having been on a multiple campus institution in a previous life, the virtual meetings and programming will continue. The virtual classrooms and classes will change staff training – making student staff do more before they even begin the job. We will need to be careful that we don’t blur the lines of the job too far beyond an official contract. The mental health and self-care that our staff needed and administered will continue to be critically important. Our students need mental health assistance and will have to learn how to ask for help.  There are limits to our resources and we will eliminate services if people don’t use them. Supply and demand will be the gatekeeper for many services to students. – Jill Eckardt, Texas Woman’s University

We won’t truly see the effects of COVID-19 on student affairs and residence life for at least another 2-3 years but already we have seen that there will definitely be a downsizing of many departments and in some cases a return to basics. I would not be surprised to see departments cut their entry level and mid-level staff in half, have SHOs return to living on campus, and rethink and revamp the Resident Assistant role completely. It’s still too early to tell but I expect our field to look different five years from now.  – Steven Courage, Curtis Institute of Music

The comments shared above are not unique as SHOs within the profession have had to demonstrate the most intrepid fortitude to lead their institutions through this pandemic (and continue to). This is a testament to the Housing and Residence Life industry as we all share a love for our work, our institutions, and our students. As always with challenges in our industry, we will most assuredly make it through.

I want to take the time to thank my SHO colleagues for taking the time out of their very busy schedules to contribute to this post.

COVID-19 Solutions: Virtual Building Tours – Vivid Media

The pandemic has certainly affected student housing business operations across the globe in many unprecedented ways. One crucial process that has been impacted is the campus tour. Admissions and housing departments alike need to develop alternate marketing strategies to showcase key campus facilities for prospective students and their families. A 2017 report by APPA – Leadership in Educational Facilities notes that “Students are deeply influenced by their first impression of a campus; multiple surveys of college-bound students point to the campus visit as the most significant factor in choosing an institution.”

Being able to showcase your facilities, particularly student housing, will help you to meet your recruitment and retention goals. Virtual tours of campus facilities are a smart and economical way to allow prospective students and their families to get a “first look” without actually stepping foot on campus. Because my campus was planning on pausing in-person tours of the residence halls due to COVID safety measures, I partnered with Vivid Media to develop an immersive, virtual tour experience for current and prospective students to view residence hall room options.

Through this platform, students and their families can explore the residence hall rooms in more detail to see the various amenities and conveniences that are offered. The virtual tours feature each building with the option to explore each room type as well as the common areas, including study lounges, recreation rooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. In each specific building tour, visitors can click into a menu in the upper left-hand corner of the viewer to choose what type of area they would like to explore. Each room type and area is specifically listed. Additionally, there are four different viewing options to use, including the following: Explore 3D Space, Dollhouse View, Floorplan View, and Measurements. These options can be toggled by clicking on the corresponding icons on the bottom left-hand corner of the viewer. Hovering over each icon with the mouse arrow will indicate what each icon represents. The menu options will change dependent upon the current view that is showing.

Explore 3D Space | Dollhouse View | Measurements

Dollhouse View | Floorplan View | Measurements

Explore 3D Space

In this view, you can literally explore the area by clicking and progressing throughout the room as if you are actually there. Also, if you left-click and hold on the mouse, you can spin the view in all directions. The faint circles on the floor indicate the vantage point from that particular spot.

Dollhouse View

The Dollhouse View permits you to view the areas as if it were an dollhouse model. Again, if you left-click and hold on the mouse, you can spin the view in all directions. This is beneficial because it gives you a sense of the spaciousness of the room.

Floorplan View

The floorplan view gives you a simplistic overhead shot of the room that is being explored. This view can be used in conjunction with the “Measurements” option to manually click on any two areas to take a measurement. This is helpful so students and their parents can make measurements of the rooms for various furnishing and decoration considerations.

The process of working with the Vivid Media staff was easy and pre-planned prior to their coming to campus to film the dozens of different residence hall areas. My staff decorated each of the suite rooms and bathrooms ahead of time so that they were fully cleaned and prepared for Vivid Media to film. The actual filming process took less than one full working day, and I worked with their team afterward to develop the link naming conventions for each of the particularly buildings and associated suites and common areas. Once the virtual tours were completed, I was able to simply add the links to our existing housing webpage so that visitors can easily access each building’s tour.

To find out more about Vivid Media and to view examples from their student housing portfolio, visit

Helfrich Advisory Services, LLC is a boutique consultancy that specializes in college and university Housing Operations and Residence Life development, including the public-private partnership (P3) market. With 20-years of professional experience, my mission is to be a leading provider of affordable and practical solutions for the college and university student housing industry.

Effects of COVID-19 on the P3 Student Housing Industry

Those of us in the student housing profession have been facing complicated challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With campus closures and the rapid pivot from face-to-face to remote learning, students were required to vacate campus housing communities to comply with directives coming from various state governments and associated educational agencies. As a result, multitudes of institutions also refunded various student fees, including housing and dining charges. This posed a myriad of systemic implications for student housing public-private partnerships (P3) given the complexity of the business relationships that exist with this type of arrangement. While universities with wholly owned housing portfolios will certainly suffer the effects of refunding millions into tens of millions of dollars for housing fees, universities with P3’s, on the other hand, will face unique financial and operational challenges.

Because of the various entities that are involved in a student housing P3, the effects will not simply be confined to a campus to manage. Between ownership entities, operating firms, investors, underwriters, and various campus departments, there will plenty of shared distress to go around. In some cases, the host university has picked up the bill for refunds given to students mandated to vacate while in other cases the project itself may dip into their own reserves to cover this.

The Downside

S&P Global and Moody’s Investors Service have already negatively downgraded the outlook for multiple privatized student housing projects given the precarious situation that colleges and universities will face with the challenges of paying debt service. The uncertainty with how the 2020-21 academic year will play out adds to the situation as institutions that decide to go to fully remote will quickly put P3 campus projects in financial risk. Financial stress will still occur even if there are plans to open, but with decreased occupancy to conform to social distancing standards. Given the partnership dynamics that exists, any direct and / or subordinate personnel expenses will be negatively affected resulting in the potential for position layoffs. Additionally, any net revenues contributed to the university will essentially be eliminated should debt covenants not be met. This will have ripple effects throughout the institution as those funds are utilized for operational expenses, discretionary projects, and even student scholarships that feed a recruitment and retention strategy.

The Upside

Privatized housing that offers apartment-style housing in most cases is more suited to accommodate the types of conditions for prevent the spread of COVID-19. Apartments with single bedrooms, bathrooms, and full kitchens can easily house two to four students each unlike large residence hall buildings that can house dozens to hundreds of students on a single floor. Universities that have P3 arrangements with affiliates with apartments are better positioned to permit students to remain with a certain level of social distancing that can not necessarily be accommodated elsewhere. Additionally, institutions that do not panic with occupancy management decisions and responsibly balance business operations with CDC guidelines will certainly weather the storm quicker.

The Outlook

Given the ability for the higher education industry overall to bounce back from the pandemic financial crisis, analysts are relatively confident that student housing will get back to normal from a cashflow, construction, and credit standpoint. P3 projects are typically positioned to have reserves that can help to alleviate short-term financial distress. Also, given that the universities will typically step in to help with a short-term emergency, the outlook is even more encouraging. Seeing the hope for a vaccine on the horizon, the stress on P3 communities is temporary and should not extend over the course of multiple years.

Helfrich Advisory Services, LLC is a boutique consultancy that specializes in college and university Housing Operations and Residence Life development, including the public-private partnership (P3) market. With 20-years of professional experience, my mission is to be a leading provider of affordable and practical solutions for the college and university student housing industry.