Remaining a Maryville College family through the pandemic

For Resident Director Raeann Reihl, family has always been at the center of her Maryville College experience. A sense of family was what first drew her to the college. 

In high school, she tagged along with a friend who was going on a tour of Maryville College. For Reihl, a first-generation student, the idea of going to college still seemed unattainable then.

In her mind, college was for wealthy people and people whose parents had gone to college. That idea shifted after a conversation with Dr. O’Gorman, professor of political science, during the tour. He talked with her about how she could make college work and urged her to continue her education, whether that was at Maryville or somewhere else.

“From that, I was like, ‘This is where I need to go to school,’ because it wasn’t about them selling me anything,” Reihl said. “You could tell immediately that it was a family and that he said that because he cared about me. He cared that I had an education.” 

Reihl met her husband, Ernie, at Maryville College before graduating with a degree in psychology in 2011. She left the college for three years to work in the nonprofit sector, eventually returning to Blount County to work at the Child Advocacy Center. 

In 2014, the Reihls were married by Rev. Dr. Anne McKee in the Center for Campus Ministry, and they renewed their vows a year later at the House in the Woods. 2014 was also the year Reihl returned to Maryville College as the Resident Director of Copeland Hall, one of the three freshman dorms.

“That was such a special time,” Reihl said. “Me and my husband joked that we immediately had 100 children right away. … It was such a unique living experience, just watching everybody learn and grow all the time and hearing about their stories. Freshmen see everything with such big eyes.”

In 2016, the Reihls’ first daughter, Charlie, was born, and they brought her home to Copeland. When she was nine months old, they moved from Copeland Hall to Gibson Hall. Their second daughter, Juniper, was born in January of 2020. Both girls have never lived anywhere but a dorm.

“She only knows this world,” Reihl said about Charlie, who turned 4 earlier this month. “It’s such a unique upbringing. … She thinks of all the students as big kids. I think it has caused her to be very, very social.”

Some of Charlie’s favorite big kids are Gibson’s resident associates. This semester was the start of Jane Meadow’s first year working for Reihl as a Gibson RA, and she met Charlie for the first time at a training event this summer. As soon as the training was over, Charlie brought out tennis rackets, bowling pins, and yard games for the RAs to play with her, and she didn’t want to put them away until they had played every game.

“She’s like a little college person,” Meadows said. “She wants to hang out with the college kids, and she comes to all of our programs. … I think she’s like the queen of this castle.”

Charlie’s extroversion and attachment to Maryville College’s students has made the COVID-19 pandemic especially hard on her. When all of the students left campus in March, she tried to run away. She ran out of the lobby doors and kept running from her mother, something she had never done before. Although students are back on campus for fall semester, Charlie still misses being able to play in the lobby and interact with students.

Juniper, on the other hand, has never known a world without COVID-19. The first confirmed case of the virus in the United States was reported just 10 days after she was born. Reihl has already noticed the impact that has on the way she reads facial expressions through people’s eyes and how she responds to voice inflections. 

When someone smiles behind their mask or speaks in a happy voice, Juniper smiles back. Although COVID-19 has caused the Reihls to keep their children home more often, Gibson’s residents have still been a part of Juniper’s life.

“It’s so crazy watching how much she’s grown, like while we’ve been here at school for the past three months, she’s learned to crawl,” Meadows said. “She’s become so much more aware of her surroundings. It’s so amazing to see.”

The decision to stay in the dorms during the pandemic wasn’t an easy one . Even with the social distancing and sanitization measures, Maryville College has put into place, there’s no denying the risk of living in a dorm. Choosing to come back to school was a difficult decision for many students and making that decision for Charlie and Juniper was even more challenging.

“I knew that I couldn’t outrun it even if I left here,” Reihl said. “I knew there would be exposures even if I left. We really couldn’t outrun this thing. We were all in this together, wherever we were.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were challenges to raising a family in a dorm. While many people struggle to balance their work life and home life, not many of them live and work in the same place. Knowing there is always someone watching you can feel like living in a fishbowl, and student emergencies occur at odd hours. Even when she’s not the Staff Member on Duty, Reihl never really takes the Resident Director hat off. Despite that, living with an extended family of 100 college students feels normal to the Reihls.

Regular dorm life inconveniences for college students can also be massive upsets for a 4-year-old and a 9-month-old. One of Reihl’s biggest fears about living in the dorms is the fire alarm waking the girls up in the middle of the night. It’s been a reoccurring nightmare for her, and she lived through it when a glitch caused the fire alarm to go off around 2 a.m. last spring. Juniper, who was a newborn at the time, slept through it.

But even after four years of having kids in the dorms, the highs still outweigh the lows. Sharing their life with Maryville College’s students has meant sharing a lot of joy too. The Reihls are a part of students’ successes and growth and Maryville College, and the students get to share in Charlie and Juniper’s milestones. Reihl hopes the experience of merging family life with the student experience will stay with her daughters.

“The hub of your life is learning, and everyone around you is thirsting to learn all the time,” Reihl said. “It’s been the neatest thing.”

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