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RAs Respond to Water Crisis on Millsaps Campus

The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi has been heavily covered by national news, and for good reason. It left the students of Millsaps College and other residents of Jackson without working clean tap water at the end of August and beginning of September. Some students likened the experience to “Millsaps Armageddon,” yet it doesn’t come as a shock to those familiar with the water system in Jackson.

According to Millsaps junior Jakob Myers-Heldt, who has researched the water system in Jackson, the pumps in the system went down about three weeks before the water crisis hit, which led to the city running on rental pumps.

“They never actually asked the people they sent the water pumps to fix the pumps,” Myers-Heldt explained. “The pH meter that’s in the intake is nonfunctional so they can only have the pH read out at the input to the plant. So, there’s the input where they take it from the Rez, and there’s the place where it goes into the plant.”

“The place where it goes into the plant is functional, while the place where it goes into the Rez is nonfunctional. So, they had a huge delay in reading the pH, and they had a huge backup. They got overwhelmed with a bunch of unclean, unusable water, and they had to find out how to treat that water or disperse it. They couldn’t put it into the river because the river was flooding, and it was 2 million gallons of water. So, that’s how Jackson lost water; they couldn’t pump that water through, and they couldn’t put it into the Ross Barnett Reservoir,” which holds the water for the city.

The bodies of water were flooding in the area due to the heavy, constant rainfall that had preceded the crisis. Thus, the water in Jackson was shut off.

On Millsaps campus, this manifested in a series of emails with ever-changing information, portable showers, portapotties, virtual classes, and chaos.

Many students went back home if they lived regionally. They didn’t want to deal with the portable showers that the school rented, or walk across campus to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

However, one group of people who didn’t get the option to leave campus were the resident assistants. I noticed a large amount of frustration among the RAs I knew, so I reached out to some others to hear about their experiences with the water crisis.

One RA commented, “I did hate not being able to go home or not knowing when I could get clean water to shower. I didn’t want to go to the gym because what if I couldn’t shower after? It was definitely a weird experience, but I feel like all of us got through it together.”

A second RA stated, “We were made to be in bad conditions. When the water was out we were unable to shower, brush our teeth, or even use the bathrooms without traveling to either side of campus.”

Another RA said, “If I had the power, I would give the RAs freedom to go back home, but I would also request them to stay if they could for the sake of managing student concerns and expectations on campus.”

One RA noted, “I feel that the RA’s should have had the choice to stay or leave. Or at least have the option to stay off-campus in Jackson if we had the option so we would still be close by if we were needed. I feel that we were thought of as only employees and not students as well, the leaders in student life were also allowed to leave and go to their homes while also saying how this was an all-hands-on-deck situation. If it were an all-hands-on-deck situation, then they would be staying on campus with us as well.”

However, there was still agreement with RAs remaining on campus. “Honestly, I agree with RAs being required to stay on campus unless all their residents have gone off campus for that time. Most of my residents are freshmen from out of state and did not have any way to go back home.  Hence, I voluntarily wanted to stay back with them.”

Dean Upshaw was in control of the decision to require RAs to stay on campus.

Some RAs stayed positive about the decision. “Dean Upshaw did not really ask for opinions, but I have no complaints because it is our duty as RAs to show up in times of emergency on campus. It is also our duty to make sure the residents are okay and support them in every way we can and that could only have been done if we stayed back with them. He also tried to make sure the RAs were okay and sent us encouragement too.”

However, when asked if Dean Upshaw listened to the RA’s feedback about his response, one RA said, “I do not think he did. All of us tried telling him this was going to be a problem when we started seeing the sign, like the flooding and the state of emergency. Then when we tried to tell him that the majority of our residents were gone he didn’t listen and stated that even if one resident was on campus we needed to be here during this time.”

The same RA did note, “I still plan to be an RA again but it also makes me see how the school should have briefed the potential RA’s during interviews and training that they may be needed to stay on campus during extreme situations such as this.”

Still, not all RAs thought the situation was completely bad. Another RA commented on being there for her freshman residents. “Overall, I felt really bad for the freshmen because they had to face this situation in their second week of school, and it must have really affected their perception of Millsaps and our system here. I talked to them about it too and one of my residents pointed out that they were just really grateful for the fact that they had a roof over their head and water provided to them by the school, and this thought converted all my complaints into sheer gratitude.”

A different RA pointed out, “I would also like to say that I do feel as though the entire school and their staff was under immense pressure, so even though they might not have handled the situation correctly I do believe they were doing their best.”

The first RA said, “It’s definitely a ‘Jackson-city problem’ and not a Millsaps problem.” There’s hope for the campus as administrators attempt to respond to future water issues by working on building their own facilities.

Millsaps’ effort to build a well has become a large point of criticism, as some have claimed that it further isolates Millsaps from the rest of Jackson. However, others believe they are simply doing what is best for their students, who pay tuition.

Many students hope that as time goes by, future water issues become less threatening on Millsaps campus. Perhaps mornings of waking up to boil water notices and low water pressure emails will become less common as time goes by for the college.