Brown recently announced plans to build a “wellness dorm,” The Herald previously reported. No one has yet elaborated on what this means: whether the dorm will be focused on physical health, mental health, general healthy living habits or some combination thereof. In any case, this project demonstrates a commitment to consciously constructing housing that prioritizes students’ needs and wellbeing.
The wellness dorm is a promising first step, but Brown should go further in improving the quality of housing that it offers. Prioritizing accessible and appealing residential halls will benefit the health of both students and the community at large.
It’s not easy to write in support of better dorms; one always runs the risk of sounding entitled, as though student housing should be on the same scale as luxury hotels. Let me be clear: I’m not requesting that Brown give us all a lazy river. I’m not asking for a movie theatre. These are wastes of money that could be better spent elsewhere.
What I am asking for is housing that students actually want to live in. Earlier this year, Samantha Savello ’18 detailed how the Office of Residential Life seems to put little effort into making desirable housing options for upperclassmen. Savello describes entering a Graduate Center dorm and finding rat poison, peeling plaster and holes in the walls.
My experiences have been similar. In my Hegeman room, I’ve had several opportunities to play my favorite guessing game: Did I drop some of the dried coconut that I was snacking on, or is the paint just falling off my walls again? (It’s difficult to get a correct answer; the best practice is to just be safe and not put it in your mouth either way). The halls are even worse. On my floor alone, I counted three spots where paint just hung off the walls. And while I won’t complain about the occasional cockroach in the bathroom (I recognize them as an inevitable problem when you’ve got so many people crowded under one roof), the basement — home to the washers and dryers, trash room and the sole kitchenette that serves the 100-plus residents living in Hegeman — is a bit of a mess. It’s so hot that there’s no way to comfortably cook a meal down there. Not to mention the fetid smell created by storing trash in the steamiest part of the building, which makes the one lounge in Hegeman extremely uninviting.
These conditions aren’t exactly conducive to wellness. As a Herald article by Emily Miller ’19 points out, decorating dorm rooms can help students create environments that offer a comfortable and relaxed escape from the academic pressures of Brown. But decor can only do so much against the general dilapidation of Brown’s upperclassmen dorms. I can attest to the fact that it’s hard to be happy when you have to sweep up chipped paint from your floor.
But even these aesthetic concerns aren’t the biggest downside to many of Brown’s dorms. Many of these living spaces are physically inaccessible to students with disabilities. On the second floor of the Hegeman tower where I live, the bathroom has both a toilet stall and a shower stall designed to accommodate a person in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, there’s no elevator. So if you can make it up the stairs, you’re rewarded with an accessible bathroom, but if not? Well … tough luck. I encountered a similar situation last year in New Pembroke. Sure, there are some residential halls that students with mobility difficulties can navigate with relative ease. They just might not be able to visit their friends’ rooms. Or, if you have a parent with a physical disability, they might not be able to help you move in or even see your room at all. Again, tough luck.
Making simple changes, like increasing accessibility or brightening up decaying paint jobs, could ultimately encourage students to stay on campus as upperclassmen. And if more students are encouraged to stay on campus, that could ultimately slow down gentrification, benefiting the health of the greater Providence community. In a Herald recent article about efforts to control rental prices, advocates pointed to a family whose home was sold to Providence Student Living, a group that provides students with housing at higher rent prices than what the family paid. Although I can’t say if that house, which is in the Federal Hill area, will be targeted toward Brown students, Providence Student Living owns student housing all over Providence. It’s not hard to imagine families closer to campus being evicted for the sake of renting out overpriced student apartments.
While the wellness dorm is a good step, there are many other improvements that ResLife could make to existing dorms in order to prioritize the physical and mental health of the students that live in them. No college student needs a luxury dorm, but asking for a space free of holes in the wall or falling chunks of plaster is not an unreasonable demand.
Caroline Mulligan ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.