Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., is currently in the spotlight for a historic football season, but students on campus are still dealing with the repercussions of the city’s water crisis, such as low pressure, cold temperatures, and discoloration. In late August, major floods overwhelmed and shut down Jackson’s main water treatment plant, which was vulnerable due to years of disinvestment. The campus, often an enclosed community of its own, was not immune to the water shutdowns. The nearly 10,000 students on campus relied on student leaders to advocate for their needs and serve as the liaison between themselves and the administration.
Southerly Community Reporting Fellow Halle Coleman spoke to Jackson State University resident assistant Kayla Carter to get insight into what it means to be a student and a student leader when a disaster hits. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Halle Coleman, Southerly: In the three years you’ve been a student, how often would you say disasters (power outages, hurricanes, snow, water system outages, etc.) hit Jackson/Jackson State?
Kayla Carter: I wouldn’t say that disasters frequently happen, but we are not immune to disasters. Most of our disasters are usually caused by a change in weather or high campus traffic times, such as move-in and move-out when dorms are experiencing high occupancy rates after periods of being offline for breaks.
Southerly: As a resident assistant, you are responsible for supervising residents, responding to complaints, reports, requests, and emergencies, and overall keeping good morale within the building. So when a disaster hits the campus, what is that process like for you?
KC: When disasters hit, this is a very hard process for me. I usually have a million calls, texts, and direct messages from students asking for updates or how to go about handling the situation when the truth is… I am in the same boat as them. Even though we receive training during the summer to prepare for the school year and have plans set in place when these types of things happen…during these times, I also feel a lot of uncertainty and anxiousness, awaiting further guidance on how to go about the situation. Though I am a student staff member, at the end of the day, I’m still a student, so managing concerns from residents while navigating the issue myself is sometimes challenging.
Southerly: Do they let y’all go home? Do y’all have to stay?
KC: Resident assistants are expected to stay on campus. We serve as points of contact for residents and are a big part of the communication network providing students with updates when such causes arise. During the holiday breaks, we are allowed to go home once all of our residents have checked out of the building.
Southerly: How fast does the school give you all the information to give to residents?
KC: I would say two days max. The school is pretty good at releasing information as soon as it has the necessary information. However, this process can sometimes take longer than we would like, causing a delay in getting messages out to the students. During that waiting period, tensions tend to rise just from the stress of everything. Students get anxious and restless and want immediate answers.
Southerly: What do you observe about out-of-state students when a disaster hits? How do they react?
KC: When disasters hit, as an RA, I definitely think it takes a negative toll on out-of-state students. Mentally, emotionally, and physically. When students don’t have the basic resources they need, like access to clean water or power, it causes a lot of stress. Especially for out-of-state students who may not have family in the area or the financial means to relocate to hotels or travel home. It’s hard to focus when you don’t feel your best self or are worrying about how you’re going to accomplish things you need to get done without proper resources. [Out-of-state] students definitely are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and feelings of defeat during this time, considering most of them are here alone. They have a lot of negative reactions and don’t always handle the news like in-state students but we work actively to provide resources to these students and be there for them in their time of need.
Southerly: Do you feel like the school/schools, in general, are properly prepared for when a disaster hits?
KC: Yes, I feel like my school specifically tries its best. It’s only so much they can do because some issues we experience are above them as an institution and an actual city issue, so they are usually learning how to serve us while navigating the issue. By providing resources like cases of water, portable showers, and restrooms, they are helping us. I do feel a sense of appreciation knowing they are working diligently to accommodate us the best way they know how.
Southerly: As a student leader, what advice do you have for students currently dealing with a form of disaster on their campuses?
KC: My advice would be first to take a deep breath. In the thick of a disaster, it’s like your mind is racing, and you can’t turn it off. Out of instinct, we’re thinking about what the next steps are. I would say slow down and try to ground yourself. Seek guidance from those around you. And also, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself when it comes to what you need from your school. You can reach out to somebody like me in an RA position and since we have that direct line to our directors who have a direct line to administration, we can work to get you assistance. Overall, try not to let the disaster deter your spirit and attitude toward your college experience!