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Housing renovation plans aimed to bolster community

The University’s extensive renovation plan is meant to unify students based on class year

As the University undertakes major changes to its housing system with a multimillion-dollar investment on the line, students expressed mixed views on how well residential life builds community.

First-year units and mutual friends are the most common ways students form connections that lead to housing groups, with 35.7 percent of current sophomores, juniors and seniors having met most of the people with whom they currently live through other friends and 35.2 percent having met most of their housing mates through their first-year units, according to results from a poll The Herald conducted last month.

Twenty-two percent of students in all class years met most of the people with whom they live or plan to live through teams or student groups, and 19 percent found most of their housing mates through academic settings.

Ten percent of students met most of the people with whom they live or plan to live through a fraternity, sorority or program house, 3 percent were randomly assigned housing and 8 percent indicated the poll question did not apply. An additional 9 percent of students, including some who studied abroad last semester or chose to live alone, indicated they are not in standard housing groups. Poll respondents circled all options that applied to them.

The Corporation allocated $56 million for housing renovations last year, setting the stage for large-scale changes to undergraduate residential life. Most renovations or improvements funded by this project will be completed by this fall, The Herald previously reported.

The housing overhaul aims both to cluster students in specific geographic areas and to create a stronger community within each  dorm, said Cody Shulman ’13, housing lottery committee chair for the Residential Council.

Administrators are moving to cluster all first-years into either Keeney Quadrangle or renovated residence halls on the Pembroke campus, with Keeney separated into three buildings, The Herald previously reported.

The plan aims to create sophomore communities in smaller dorms clustered in the center of campus and on south campus. Caswell and Littlefield Halls and Hope College are already sophomore-designated, and Barbour and Perkins Halls will become sophomore-only this fall. New Pembroke and Wriston Quadrangle will also have housing options for sophomores.

Juniors and seniors will be in suites and apartments, with Graduate Center, Vartan Gregorian Quad and Young Orchard now open only to upperclassmen, The Herald previously reported.

The University’s plans involved considerable student input, said Director of Residential Experience Natalie Basil. Separating dorms based on class was a solution for first-years’ complaints about some units being “awkward and disjointed” because upperclassmen lived in their buildings, she added.

Senior Associate Dean of Residential and Dining Services Richard Bova said in his decade at the University, sophomores have often said they felt “neglected” by a lottery system they found skewed toward upperclassmen.

Administrators said they designed the plan for sophomore communities to prevent sophomores from feeling like an afterthought.

The University has “a very open and independent system” that allows students to progress through their time at Brown from the “cohesiveness” of their first-year units so they can make their own housing choices by the time they are upperclassmen, Bova said. “It is about the independence of progressively getting better housing.”


Out of bounds

Students said they see value in the first-year unit system, but some criticized the current residential life structure.

“I would definitely say that my best friends have been kept and cultivated through where I’ve lived,” said Giulia Basile ’13, adding that she lived with most of her current roommates during her sophomore year and is still friends with people from her first-year unit.

Thirty-four percent of seniors and 34.6 percent of juniors met most of their current housemates through their first-year units.

Basile, who now lives off campus, said she supports the focus on communities based on class year for underclassmen. New common spaces being developed as part of the overhaul will facilitate this process, she said.

But living near students did not always foster friendship, Basile said, adding that sometimes she “had no idea who was living around” her.

Many students expressed support for making off-campus permission easier to attain. First-years and sophomores are required to live on campus, and those who wish to leave the dorms as juniors must petition the University.

“I still don’t understand the reasoning behind making it so difficult” to live off campus, Basile said, noting that it is often cheaper for students to live in houses or apartments.

By keeping students from moving to private houses and apartments within campus boundaries, the University “forces people to live in places that are actually farther and actually less a part of the community,” said Ana Rosenstein ’15. She added that a residential college system like Yale’s would not work at Brown because of a lack of space and suitable buildings.


“Sense of belonging”

The lottery system and efforts to create communities based on year differentiate the University from its peer institutions.

Yale assigns incoming students to one of 12 residential colleges, and many students live in their assigned residential colleges for the rest of their time at Yale.

“You can live with the same people early and have that sense of belonging,” said Elizabeth Bradley, master of Yale’s Branford College. “Each college is randomly put together so they’re a microcosm of Yale,” she said.

“It provides an immediate and accessible group of friends,” said Sam Bendinelli, a senior in Yale’s Berkeley College. “College can be a big transition and knowing all these people from the get-go means more people to talk to in class.”

These spaces often foster “a lot of pride” in new Yale students, Bendinelli said.

The residential college model of mixing class years remains rooted at Yale, but a rising emphasis on the value of sophomore clusters appears to be gaining traction at the University and other schools.

As a small liberal arts college, Amherst College features 37 residence halls, which are inhabited by at most 125 students each, wrote Pamela Stawasz, Amherst’s assistant director of residential life, in an email to The Herald. Though Stawasz wrote that only first-years currently have specifically designated residence halls, she added this could change.

Recent research indicates that residential communities based on class year benefit undergraduates even after their first year, Stawasz wrote. She added that in light of this research, many institutions have begun shifting their approaches to residential life by creating new sophomore-based housing.


Common ground

Forming a housing group with fellow members of teams or student groups is common among students, especially athletes. Sixty-two percent of varsity athletes who took The Herald’s poll indicated they met most of their current cohabitants through athletic or extracurricular activities, whereas 14.5 percent of students who are not on a varsity sports team did so.

Carter Aronson ’13, a member of the men’s crew team who has lived off campus for the past two years, said many of his housemates are also on the team.

Alex Scott ’16, a member of the women’s softball team, said she is planning to live on campus with teammates next year. She added that she formed stronger ties with her teammates than she did with students in her first-year unit.

The opportunities to live in different campus areas over students’ four years is beneficial, Lauren Cheung ’15 said, adding that she does not support moving to a residential college system with static housing.

“You need to give people their space,” Cheung said. “I like the chance to switch it up and have different roommates and different people living around me in general.”

But Scott said she believes the residential college model does a better job than the University at building a sense of community. Scott said when she visited Yale, she liked how most first-years remained with their residential colleges for all four years.

“It’s more like a family,” Scott said, adding that she believes there is benefit to mixing class years in one living space.

For some of the 10 percent of poll respondents who indicated meeting most of their housemates in a fraternity, sorority or special program house, these communities offer a way to avoid the lottery and the perceived disorientation that accompanies housing at Brown.

“The whole lottery system is sort of chaotic and doesn’t make sense and ends up screwing a lot of people over,” said Emily Walsh ’13, a resident of Technology House who expressed relief at having avoided the lottery.

Over 14 percent of sophomores — the most of any class — met most of their current housing mates through Greek life or program houses, while only 5.5 percent of seniors — the least of any class — met their housemates through those groups, according to the poll results.

Ben Chesler ’15 said he joined the Social Action House after his first year to form a group of friends tied to his residential experience, adding that the University’s system should more fully respond to students’ needs for community.

“I’d like to see their mission more fitting overall the mission of Brown as an educational institution (and) as a social place, than just putting students into rooms,” Chesler said.

Greek life provides students with “a subsection of the University they closer identify with,” said Greek Council Chair Tommy Fink ’13.

The push for greater residential intimacy goes beyond Wriston Quad, extending to current efforts to use class year as a basis for making students feel more connected.

Shulman said he believes a dorm-specific focus can be more effective in fostering community than campus-wide events. He added that the University’s overhaul “standardized the community aspect” of housing by creating smaller communities for first-years and sophomores. But students remain divided over whether they will benefit from the current plan.

Residential Peer Leader Sophia Rabb ’14, who has served as an RPL for two years, said she believes first-year units are critical for building “a strong community for all four years.”

But as the University’s housing overhaul continues, students’ concerns over community remain at the forefront. Rabb, who will witness the University’s plans unfold as she continues next year as an RPL, said the pace of change can try students’ patience. “There is work to be done, but it has to be done slowly, and I think that’s frustrating to students.”


— With reporting by Sam Heft-Luthy and Brittany Nieves



Written questionnaires were administered to 1,202 undergraduates March 13-14 in the lobby of J. Walter Wilson and the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center during the day and the Sciences Library at night. The poll has a 2.55 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. The margin of error is 3.9 percent for the subset of males, 3.4 percent for females, 5.1 percent for first-years, 4.7 percent for sophomores, 5.4 percent for juniors, 5.2 percent for seniors, 3.8 percent for students receiving financial aid, 3.4 percent for students not receiving financial aid, 6.5 percent for varsity athletes and 2.8 percent for non-athletes.


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