Residential Commons: Transforming The On-Campus Living Experience
My first days at SMU were overwhelming. Mapping the quickest route from class to class and learning the difference between Fondren Library Center and Fondren Science Building were minor adjustments. Arriving on campus meant something much larger, the first big step toward being an adult – moving out.
In Boaz, McElvaney, Mary Hay and all the residence halls along Bishop Boulevard, apprehensive first-year students eyed their new homes and roommates. Although many students request friends or acquaintances as roommates upon acceptance to SMU, most participate in potluck selection and spend their first year bunking with a stranger.
The freedom of living away from my parents on the scenic SMU campus was exciting, with a constant influx of new friends and activities. However, soon I began wishing for my first apartment in Dallas and couldn’t wait to have my own kitchen and bathroom. But moving off campus was jarring.
If you hadn’t found an apartment by the end of freshman year, you were already behind, as accommodations near campus were swept up long before May. Although some residential hall rooms are available to upper-class students who choose to remain on campus, beginning their sophomore year, many students as young as 19 commute to campus from Uptown, the Village or other nearby areas. I became an efficient grocery shopper, adjusted to a neighborhood without campus staff or police and navigated traffic and parking to get to class on time.
But this scenario will change in 2014 with the completion of five new residence halls in the southeast corner of campus. They will be part of the Residential Commons, along with all other residence halls retrofitted to that model. And SMU will require sophomores to live on campus, in addition to first-year students.
Derived from the model that originated at higher learning institutions overseas, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, the Residential Commons can be most familiarly compared to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Although there will be no ceremonial “sorting hat,” all room assignments will be random. Faculty members will live in apartments tucked into the residence halls, relationships with a particular hall will last an entire academic career, there will be classrooms in each hall, and students will be encouraged to participate in activities with their residential neighbors.
“The idea is that each Commons will be a microcosm of the campus as a whole,” says Lori White, vice president for student affairs. “We want to avoid the stereotypes that X-type of student lives here and Y-type of student lives there.”
Driving to and parking next to Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports is no longer possible because construction is in progress; when the project is completed, the Center will be flanked by a dining facility and five new residence halls, which will house 1,258 more students in addition to the current 1,922 already living on campus.
The common misnomer applied to these buildings has been “sophomore housing,” when, in fact, five existing residence halls also will convert to the Commons model. Although this means the disbanding of casual communities that have sprung up, such as Meadows students being assigned to Mary Hay, the belief is that stronger communities can be created with a diverse mixture of students, White says. And it is hoped that these bonds will be strengthened as students spend more than one year within those communities.
Deanna Vella ’10, who spent her sophomore and junior years as a resident assistant, recalls an enthusiasm in first-year students that fizzled in sophomores who lived on or off campus. “It can be frustrating to be the only sophomore in your dorm. I imagine the new Commons model will keep students more comfortable and involved,” she says.
Resident assistants will continue to lead in the Commons, but each building also will include a faculty member in residence. In all there will be 11 live-in faculty members – some self-identified and some nominated by students. Although resident professors are not intended to serve as authority figures for student life, SMU officials hope that mutually beneficial relationships will develop between students and faculty.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of History David Doyle lived in the Virginia-Snider Hall as director of the University Honors Program. Seeing his students as “complete individuals” informed his communications with them in the classroom, he says. “I think my living there reinforced things I taught in the classroom, but it also set the mood that studying could be acceptable,” Doyle says. “As I got to know the students, they would come to me with questions unrelated to academics.”
This interactive component is key to the Residential Commons model, according to Steve Logan, senior executive director of residence life and student housing. “Academic integration and interaction is one of the main benefits we came across in our research on the Commons model,” he says. “As we attract more highly qualified students, the living experience becomes as important as the curriculum.”
For many students, proximity to professors might seem intimidating or even off-putting. But having faculty in residence not only enables students to become comfortable with taking advantage of office hours right next to where they live, it also allows professors to see the varied lives of their students.
“There won’t be forced interactions with the faculty members,” says Jeff Grim, assistant director of residence life. “But I imagine professors will start different traditions, like taking a group of students to a local theater or inviting them over for movies or coffee.”
To develop a vision for its Residential Commons model, SMU appointed a committee of faculty, staff and students to look at institutions that have live-on requirements after the first year and/or adopted similar designs for student housing. Duke University and Rice University are leading examples that require on-campus living through the junior year. Several schools made the transition to a residential college model in the past decade, including Washington University in St. Louis and Vanderbilt University, which SMU considers benchmark schools.
Living on campus has been linked to higher retention rates and a greater sense of camaraderie among students. “No private university in the U.S. News & World Report Top 50 lacks the capacity to house all second-year students on campus, and no private university in that group has less than a 90 percent retention rate of first-year students, or less than an 80 percent six-year graduation rate,” says SMU Provost Paul Ludden. SMU’s first-year retention rate is 88 percent, and its six-year graduation rate is 77 percent.
The Residential Commons model “enriches the living and learning environment by emphasizing academic and social balance,” Ludden adds. “This intellectual and social community will be appealing to the high-achieving students we seek in greater numbers.”
Although many of the schools studied first instituted a sophomore requirement and slowly segued into a residential commons model, SMU’s change will be immediate in terms of the transition to an all-residential commons model for first- and second-year students. The first students will be relied upon to create traditions within each commons.
“I imagine they’ll want to organize intramural teams or annual events,” White says, emphasizing that this is one of the points she’s most excited about. “When something is new, there are fewer limitations.”
At its core this model is about providing students with a “common experience.” Many students find this sense of belonging in the Greek system or in campus organizations, but often it takes months to find an affinity group. “It definitely takes students awhile to adjust to their new environment,” Vella says. “As an RA, I would watch kids take almost all year to settle into their lives, and then they would start looking for an apartment,” requiring another transition.
Logan hopes the Commons model will quell the fears of parents who worry about their children moving out on their own before they’re emotionally ready. White agrees, citing numerous stories she’s heard of students who feel unprepared for life off campus.
“School can be stressful enough without worrying about having to cook your own meals or pay your bills on time,” she says. “We hope this will put the parents and the students at ease.”
SMU officials hope this new model will bolster the vibrancy of on-campus life as well as school spirit. Every school that served as a case study for these changes, from Wake Forest to Notre Dame, confirmed that longer connections with on-campus living engender lifetime dedication to the school.
It’s hard to imagine how living on campus an extra year would have changed my experience. Some of my fondest memories are of breakfasts at Umphrey Lee, ultimate Frisbee games on the lawn in front of Dallas Hall and the conversations I had with professors during their office hours. As an upperclassman, my participation in these activities slowly tapered. I can’t help but wonder what memories of SMU I missed because so often the two miles to campus seemed too far to drive.