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Annapolis Senior Timon Luo on Life as a Remote RA

April 6, 2020 | By Les Poling

Timon Luo (A20) with a friend’s cat, Bean.

Before the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic, Timon Luo (A20) kept busy as a Resident Assistant in Campbell 3—a community that thrived on WWE, finger-fencing, pranks, and more. Now that in-person classes have been suspended, we spoke with Luo about maintaining that sense of community from afar.

First of all, where are you in the world right now? What have the last few weeks been like for you?

I’m in New York City. My parents and I are fortunate to live in a more suburban part of Brooklyn, so we’ve been able to avoid crowds for the most part, but of course you always run into people in the supermarket. The streets are abandoned—my parents joke that it’s like the scene from 28 Days Later, when the protagonist wakes up to find London completely devoid of humanity. Zombie movies have been on my mind a lot recently. We were hit bad by Hurricane Sandy, but a disaster that turns a metropolis of 8 million into a ghost town is nothing short of fantastical.

Despite this, enough time has passed that this bizarre state of affairs feels normal to me. My parents are immigrants from China and follow the underground Chinese news media, so we’ve known about the coronavirus outbreak since it surfaced. I also had read reports in The Washington Post about how New York was in danger of becoming the next Italy, so the situation now is not completely unexpected. We took social distancing very seriously, even before Governor Cuomo gave the official lockdown order. Since then I’ve been interpreting CDC directives and figuring out how to get groceries while minimizing the risk of infection. My parents are both at-risk individuals so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

There’s only so much I can control, so I focus on the practical. What is something I can accomplish right here, right now? There’s no use in panicking about the end of the world. I arm myself with a bottle of hand sanitizer and gloves before I venture out to the local supermarkets. I have to live my life somehow, so I’ve been spending my time reading books I never had time to read before, doing home workouts, and trying to explain to my tutors where the “Screenshare” button is on Zoom.

Tell me a little bit about your hall, Campbell 3, and your role as an RA.

I love Campbell 3. I lived in Campbell 3 my freshman year, so choosing to return to Campbell 3 in my senior year is a sort of homecoming. During my freshman year, my hallmates were all interesting characters—I can’t name names, of course, but there was a Hegel-themed philosophical rapper who prided himself as the modern-day Diogenes, a guy whose wide eyes would always freak out the RA, and me, who really loved pigeons and never stopped trying to bring them up in class. When Ms. Waters and Mr. Dugan asked me where I wanted to serve as Resident Assistant for my last year at SJC, my choice was clear.

Apparently, Campbell 3 has always had a reputation for being kind of strange. A 70s alum told one of my freshmen that Campbell 3 was known as “the Beehive” back in the day. My current crew of freshmen, sophomores, and one junior are no exception. To my disappointment, none of them are willing to “vandalize” campus with chalk pigeons to carry on the cherished tradition, but they’re lovely, nonetheless. They’re mainly gamers and anime and pro-wrestling nerds, which is why our Discord server is titled “Weeb Floor.” This year, Campbell 3 features the proud father of a dozen bonsai trees who’s also really into baking, a pro-wrestling maniac who is our hall’s unbeaten finger-fencing champion, a guy with owl-like eyes who always looks confused, and at least two summer camp counselors.

As far as I know, the Resident Assistants at St. John’s College are generally closer to their residents compared to RAs at other schools. This comes from SJC being such a small school—I know a Senior Resident Assistant at a Long Island university who’s responsible for a building of more than 80 residents and barely sees any of them.

Before the world went crazy, I would throw occasional events like pizza or Chinese food parties, but the lion’s share of my work was just being present and interacting with residents of my hall. It’s a delight to talk with my 30 residents—it helps, of course, that we share similarly nerdy interests, but even aside from wrestling or anime, I loved hearing about what they thought of the Program readings. With the exception of Ancient Greek (I was a Greek assistant for a year), I barely remember anything from freshman year, so conversing with underclassmen is like revisiting past memories. Freshman year is when many of them are exposed to Plato and Aristotle for the first time, a rite of passage for Johnnies. As they progress through the freshman year Program, they come to understand more Johnnie memes and inside jokes—they become immersed in the culture.

The hardest parts of being an RA are the times when I’m needed the most. I’m not complaining—I signed up to be an RA precisely because I wanted to help people. Back when I was an underclassman, my RAs, Collin and Katelin, were incredibly understanding and supportive of my own struggles with depression. I understand the helplessness and despair that people can feel—especially men, whose mental health issues are often stigmatized. That’s why I wanted to be an RA. I realized that my experiences with depression gave me the empathy to relate to my residents and help them along their path to recovery. Resident Assistants aren’t meant to be mental health workers, of course, and I would always encourage them to see the counselors at the health center, but often residents would prefer to speak to a fellow student rather than a stranger.

The other reason I wanted to be an RA was the ability to put up hall posters. I fully and unabashedly abused this prerogative my first year as an RA by putting posters of pigeons on every single door of Humphreys 2. I called my hall “the Aviary.” I have no regrets.

What were some of your favorite parts of being an RA before the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic?

My favorite part of being an RA before the coronavirus pandemic was not having to live in a coronavirus pandemic. My second-favorite part of being an RA before the coronavirus pandemic was interacting with my residents in-person. There’s a pleasure in being able to know people who are unabashedly weird and proud of it. Taking a cue from my freshman RA, Collin, I always had markers on a whiteboard for people to doodle and write whatever they felt like. A meme culture full of inside jokes and references arose pretty quickly. There was one room, 307, that would post updated Johnnie-themed memes on their door for us to rate and comment. We were probably the nerdiest floor in the whole campus.

The number of official hall events I could throw was constrained by my yearly hall budget, but it was far more rewarding just to stand in the hallway and wait for something to happen. Before long, impromptu pro-wrestling or finger-fencing tournaments would erupt, freshmen would start climbing on walls, and people would start shrieking about video games or plants. I’m not sure if I really did anything as much as foster an environment in which a friendly and vibrant culture could flourish. I don’t believe in forcing a sense of community through phony optimism and flashy events; I’m not really big on events anyway. In the very first hall meeting of the year, I set common baseline expectations: don’t dirty the bathroom, don’t puke in the shower stalls, live with each other as if you were going to live with each other for a very long time, and you can come talk to me about anything. It helped that we had sophomores to underscore the importance of living well together. Soon, residents just organically wanted to hang around each other, and there would be entire rooms of residents that would eat together in the dining hall.

My residents wanted to have fun, so all I did was to encourage it, as long as they weren’t burning down the dorms or doing anything crazy. On Saturday evenings, one of my residents began the tradition of reading a story or poem to the hall. His roommate contributed to the culture by beginning another, more elaborate tradition. At some point in the year, the Campbell 3 boys began conducting “raids” on the two other Campbell floors. I have no idea why—I had no part in planning them, but I didn’t stop them. Every Thursday at 7:35 p.m., 25 minutes before seminar, they would muster out on the staircase, drag out our mascot Greg (did I mention we had a mascot?) on a chair like a saintly icon, and then whoop and holler through Campbell 2 and Campbell 1 while singing “Hine Ma Tov.” The girls of Campbell 2 got so fed up with these raids that their RA actually started leading counterraids: They’d come up and run through our hallway whooping and shrieking as payback.

We had a mascot named Greg, who comprised of a plastic jack-o’-lantern, a shoebox, clothes, and shoes arranged in a scarecrow-like fashion seated on a spare Johnnie chair. Initially, we placed Greg in the hallway, and he would stare deep into my soul when I woke up at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom. When the fire marshal objected, we placed him in the telephone room and wrote “I am Greg” or “I am ugly” in as many languages we knew on a sign above his head.

What are some of the ways you’ve been keeping in touch with the rest of Campbell 3 and maintaining that sense of community?

We set up a Discord server earlier in the year and we’ve continued to use that, though not everyone is on it. When the school announced the cancellation of in-person classes, it was initially difficult to assure my residents of anything. Nobody knew if the cancellations were permanent or what “alternative forms of instruction” meant. I tried my best to comfort and inform my residents. Now that the new normal has set in, we’ve just been chatting on the server and planning some hall events. Someone created a Minecraft server for the Annapolis campus, so I’ve been barging into their virtual rooms for RA room checks and trying to gather enough materials to build a Minecraft replica of campus. We’re also planning Discord livestreams of movies or WWE events.

Have there been any surprising outcomes since becoming a remote RA?

Honestly, during the school year I always joked about playing Minecraft with my freshmen, but I never had time until now.

What have been the biggest challenges so far?

I haven’t been able to maintain contact with everyone. I also haven’t been able to provide all the answers to my residents like I usually can. I can’t tell my residents what’s going to happen or what the school is planning for next year; at this stage I doubt the school has any idea either. Some of my residents say they’d be crestfallen if next year is moved online as well. I understand that sentiment, but we really don’t know anything.

Right now, everyone is understandably gripped with anxiety. Everyone feels powerless. As much as we wish we could wake up and find everything restored to normalcy, the coronavirus situation is not under our control. The economy is not under our control; what will happen to the school is not under our control. The most we can do is simply live our lives day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute—that’s why I continue to joke and interact with my residents on the Discord server. That isn’t to say I’m completely zen about this whole situation, but as Seneca said, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” This might not be a comfortable situation, but I am certain that if we put in a little elbow grease, we’ll leave our houses with our sanity mostly intact.