This year more freshmen than usual will become acquainted with the Bursley-Baits bus.
A large increase in students who accepted their Fall 2010 admission left University Housing scrambling to accommodate a freshman class larger than ever before and resulted in the creation of the Northwood Houses, the first entirely new freshmen residence hall in almost forty years.
University Housing spokesman Peter Logan said that despite algorithms used by the admissions office to estimate class size, the number was larger than they originally anticipated by about 400 students. About 240 of those extra students will be housed on North Campus this year.
“It created for us a challenge to accommodate any one of these freshmen who wanted to be placed in University housing,” he said.
The problem was intensified because Couzens Hall, traditionally reserved for freshmen students, is closed for renovations and the newly completed North Quadrangle is only housing upperclassmen.
“Because of the number of bed spaces unavailable to us, we got creative and did a lot of brainstorming within Housing at the Division of Student Affairs,” Logan said.
He said Housing officials decided to convert staff offices in Oxford Housing back to student rooms, as well as repurposing smaller lounges in other residence halls, a strategy used in the past when the University was at full capacity. Together, these efforts successfully placed 160 residents, leaving University officials wondering how to accommodate close to 240 other students.
“The option that made the most sense was creating a first-year community out of three apartment buildings in Northwood,” Logan said. “So we identified three buildings that were adjacent to each other and basically had them furnished like any residence hall.”
He added that most residents placed in the new housing had indicated that they wanted to live on North Campus in their housing application.
Unlike many freshmen residence halls, each Northwood unit is equipped with a kitchen and bathroom. The three buildings share outdoor common spaces, like small gazebos and picnic tables, as well as a common laundry area and indoor lounge equipped with wireless Internet access. Despite the distinctive layout, the residence hall is staffed just like any other dormitory and outfitted with the same modular furniture.
Because University Housing held to the move-in date they announced, the new hall was prepared very quickly, with additional plumbing and carpentry, fire and safety system testing and the addition of wireless access all completed by the end of the summer.
After the extensive preparation, Logan said there was a lot of excitement surrounding the opening of the new living option.
“This was something of a bold step for us because we had not placed first-year students in apartment-type living arrangements before,” he said.
Though officials were excited to offer the non-traditional accommodations, Logan said a major concern was maintaining a sense of community in the apartment setting.
“We don’t want to place first-year students into an isolated situation like an apartment,” Logan said. “But, after creating a contiguous community and then programming it and staffing it, we think it will be an interesting living arrangement.”
In addition, because Housing officials view the dining experience as an essential part of campus integration, each student is required to have a meal plan, Logan said. Accordingly, many of the residents eat their meals across the street at Bursley Hall.
Engineering sophomore Aaron Frantz, vice president for finance of the Residence Hall Association, said he’s unsure how successful the separate houses will be at fostering a strong community.
“As separate apartments those buildings were designed so that you could have your own personal space in your own little corner on North Campus,” he said. “And they’re trying now to change that model into a community, while the architecture doesn’t exactly facilitate that.”
Several programs specifically geared towards first-year students have been held in the new hall, including using Mapquest to find classes and touring buildings, as well as group walks to the football games — all in addition to annual North Campus events such as Northfest.
Trey Boynton, the Northwood Housing First Year Experience program coordinator, said the first-year programs in the Northwood Houses worked within the bizarre layout rather than trying to overcome the physical obstacles of individual apartments.
“We have to be mindful of our community space,” she said. “We use the living rooms (in each unit), and we’re taking advantage of the weather while we have it by having a lot of our meetings on the lawn.”
Boynton also said the different space presents opportunities not available in a regular residence hall.
“We get to be a little more adventurous and creative because we all have kitchens and that’s pretty cool,” she said.
Though several students seem satisfied with their new residence, opinions vary on the level of community available.
Music school freshman Pavithra Ramachandran said it isn’t as easy to meet people as it is in other halls.
“It’s not like a dorm room where you can just basically walk down a row and meet people because here you just have a neighbor or two,” she said.
Music school freshman Alison Aliquina said though she is very happy with her living situation, she hasn’t seen much of a community in the new residence hall.
“I’m happy I don’t have to share a bathroom with other people,” she said. “But you don’t branch out as much here, and instead get closer to your tight-knit group.”
Despite some feelings of disconnectedness, most residents are happy to say that resident advisors are very helpful in making them feel welcome and adjusted.
Boynton said a main reason the staff has been so successful in integrating with the students is the number of RAs available to the small number of students.
“The student to staff ratio is really super low,” she said. “It allows our staff to really get to know our students.”
Boynton said that despite community obstacles, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“My favorite story is about a student who walked in and yelled, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is awesome,’” she said. “And then his mom walked in and yelled, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is amazing!’ So there was a lot of positive yelling going on.”
Logan also said that to his knowledge, the reaction to the new hall has been positive so far and that despite the less community-oriented architecture, students are still meeting each other.
“There seems to be a lot of engagement between students and student staff,” he said. “And there seems to be an interest in forming their community council.”
Frantz said the RHA is very excited about the new addition to campus, and that RHA representatives have already begun taking steps to get the new residence hall prepared for the coming year.
“We’re looking forward to integrating a whole new community with a very different flavor,” he said. “We are talking with hall directors and trying to get a hall council and multicultural council set up so that when the first RHA assembly meeting happens they can be seated and functioning.”
Frantz says the new addition has already had a substantial impact on the usually sparsely populated North Campus.
“I was surprised to find the dining hall really full,” he said. “And I was amazed when, on the first night of move-in, I needed to catch a bus and it was completely filled with girls in miniskirts and guys in undershirts.”
Logan said that if the new residence hall is successful, Housing officials will continue the program in coming years.
“When we decided to take this approach we decided it wouldn’t be a quick fix or a band-aid effort,” he said. “We’re hopeful that this will succeed and provide us with yet a new ongoing first year experience for incoming students because we don’t know where we’ll be next year.”