Al-Salem ’17: ResLife woes

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, February 12, 2015

I remember distinctly the first time I had a bad impression of Brown’s dorms. I was in one of those overly energetic tour groups in summer 2013 — after I had already been accepted to the University — and the tour leader was talking about residential life. I vaguely remember that she said some dorms were under renovation and how great that would be for the incoming freshmen. But then someone in the group asked about upperclassmen housing. When she answered nonchalantly that around 80 percent of the senior class lives off campus, I immediately got the impression that Brown dorms must have some factor that pushes that many students away.

I want to say my bad attitude toward the Office of Residential Life began long before I even knew that was where I should direct my anger. But the total frustration took a good chunk of my freshman year to develop to the beast that it is now. In the beginning, I struggled with the idea of gender-neutral bathrooms as a girl coming from a country that had separate gendered lines at McDonald’s, but I was overly impressed with the star quality of my Keeney Quadrangle dorm. The kitchen was fantastic, the room was big and the lounge looked like it was straight out of a catalogue.

But then, as first semester came to an end, talk of the housing lottery and sophomore housing began. I didn’t know much about the lottery, but from what I had read online before coming to Brown and heard from upperclassmen, it sounded chaotic and stressful. A lot of people said it would be different during my year because it was going electronic for the first time. Still, I didn’t understand what the process was in the first place to feel better about the situation.

It didn’t take long for me to realize the lottery — electronic or not — is a flawed system that doesn’t achieve any community goals that I would hope ResLife tries to achieve. The flaws come from several different angles, but first I will bring attention to the most glaring mistake: dorms seem to get worse and worse as you rise in class year.

Freshman dorms are easily the best, with Andrews’ sinks and Keeney’s high-tech facilities. Then come sophomore dorms, with Littlefield dorms — Hope, Caswell, Littlefield — reigning. Then the rest fall short to program houses and fraternities.

My knowledge of junior dorms extends as far as Graduate Center, which has been described as a jailhouse to me on several occasions, and New Dorm, which is nothing to write home about. Then the seniors are left — with 80 percent of them choosing not to be thrown under the bus anymore and making the decision to live off campus, and the small 20 percent content with upperclassman housing.

This aspect of the backwards improvement of dorms according to class year is just one notch on ResLife’s bad guy belt — other notches include relocating students to misplaced dorms and randomly assigning rooms to students returning from studying abroad.

But I think the very method ResLife uses to assign students their dorms fundamentally destroys the potential for a stronger Brown community.

For example, at peer institutions such as Harvard and Yale, students remain with one house until they graduate. Within those houses, rooms are improved as the student rises in year, unlike Brown’s system that doesn’t guarantee that. Regardless, the idea that you could graduate with a house reflects an image of community and allegiance that fosters a more interconnected environment that I do not see at the University.

Living in a single in Goddard, I do not know anyone on my floor save for my Community Assistant who is part of a wider Residential Peer Leader program that I do admire and appreciate. There is absolutely no community, as hard as the RPL program tries for sophomores.

I do not blame the program — I blame the fact that there is no community mindset during the lottery to begin with. If anything, any community I may have had in my freshman year vanished after everyone was split apart, since the lottery does not even guarantee that you can remain with your friend group.

Even without knowing all of the mechanics and reasons behind ResLife’s process, I believe Brown would have a completely different atmosphere  — one that fosters a spirited sense of community and improves students’ relationships with their neighbors — if it had a more cohesive and community-based residential life system.

Sara Al-Salem ’17 can be reached at

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