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Residential Life Task Force
 

HOUSING OPTIONS

The Housing Options Subcommittee (Mela Dutka, dean of students, chair; Lindy Davis '04; Susan Etheredge '77, assistant professor, Education and Child Study; Ateth Siv '05, fall semester only; and Megan Thomas AC) was asked to evaluate questions dealing with the types of housing facilities offered to students. These questions, broadly stated, include:

What living options will best achieve desired educational outcomes?

What living options will serve the needs of students now and in the next three decades?

Should the college hire consultants to help plan for future renovation and redesign of houses?

Members of the subcommittee, building on the work of the mission subcommittee, determined that housing or living options support the mission of residence life by providing choices that:

Encourage students to seek living options designed to bring them into contact with others (students, faculty and staff) who would challenge their ideas and beliefs by exposing them to personal, racial, cultural, moral and political differences.

Afford students opportunities to be actively involved in the Smith community while supporting the need for solitude and reflection.

Furnish students and faculty with sufficient opportunities for lively, enjoyable and educationally rich interaction.

National Trends in College Housing

Members of the subcommittee began by examining trends in housing at other colleges and universities (see Appendix 6 for a comparative chart).

Trends in college housing options include:

Current Conditions at Smith College

Currently, 97% of students live in traditional houses with dining rooms or shared dining. Tenney House and Hopkins House, our two co-ops, house 0.57% and 0.73% of the students in residence, respectively; 2% live in Friedman apartments; 2.3% of students live in Chase House, which is reserved for seniors; and 0.0075% live in French-speaking Dawes House. Perennial waitlists for these limited facilities is our first indicator of demand for more housing options on campus. The Housing and Dining Survey included Ada Comstock Scholars. Because the needs of our non-traditional students are unique, and over half live off campus, the task force did not focus on the preferences of Adas. We were also aware that a study devoted to the needs of Adas was conducted relatively recently. (See Appendix 7 for a complete listing of houses, occupancy, and other features.)Housing and Dining Survey
The Housing and Dining Survey conducted in October 2002 (see Appendices 3 and 4) included several questions of interest to the subcommittee. Survey results indicated a number of student preferences regarding housing options, including:

Increased options across all classes (except for Ada Comstock Scholars) for suite style living (typically a shared bathroom and small living or sitting area, or at minimum a shared bathroom).

Increased options for apartment style living particularly for juniors, seniors and Ada Comstock Scholars.

Increased independent living structures for juniors and seniors, reflected in dining and house policy and governance options.

Increased options for thematic living.

Increased access to adequate kitchen facilities (not “kitchenettes” or access only to a microwave unit).

The results of the fall survey suggest there is a low level of interest in off-campus housing options and co-op housing. In particular, co-op housing, which is often reported anecdotally to be of interest to students, would be chosen as a living option by only 6% of juniors and 7% of seniors responding to the survey (the two groups with the highest reported interest). As noted below, this low-level interest may relate to students' understanding of co-op housing at Smith. Currently, co-op housing appears to be viewed by some students as a way of escaping a restrictive house dining system (both co-ops cook their own meals) or the only type of independent living choice available, rather than as a way of exploring a more richly developed co-operative living experience.

Focus Groups

Three focus groups were conducted in February and early March to follow up on questions raised by the Housing and Dining Survey. The groups included: residential life staff and house presidents; a stratified randomly selected sample of students; and Residence and Dining Service staff. Invitations were issued to approximately 100 students for the first group and 80 students for the randomly selected group. Although the actual number of participants in each student group was small (6-7), the discussion was quite rich and echoed the results found in the online survey, thus supporting the validity of the focus group results. Thirteen members of the Residence and Dining Services staff were invited to attend the focus group and almost all those invited attended.

FINDINGS

Advantages and Satisfactions Associated with the House System

Overall, students describe the current housing system and options in positive terms. They enjoy the opportunity to live in small communities that allow them to form close friendships. They believe that having all four classes reside in a house confers both social and academic advantages. These advantages include learning from more senior peers, being able to form friendships more easily with younger or older peers, and having almost around-the-clock access to others more knowledgeable about majors and coursework. First year students describe their houses as providing a “ready-made” community with all the necessary ingredients, thus saving the time and energy it would have taken to construct this kind of social setting for themselves. Students also spoke favorably about the effects of in-house dining on the house community and the benefits they derive. The constant daily interaction occasioned by in-house dining reinforces the perception, and thus for some the reality, of close and mostly positive relationships.

Most students like the houses and the amenities offered. The exceptionally high desirability of single rooms was evident. Some frustration was voiced about not being able to obtain a single room, particularly by the sophomore year, a point at which it seems most students perceive they should be able to secure a single room. (Our comparative study revealed that at many peer colleges, single rooms are not available until the junior or even senior year.) Students like the conviviality offered by house common spaces (living rooms, study rooms, dining areas, etc.), where they know they can find people to talk to or be with easily in most houses. The notion of a readily available group of peers seems to underlie the positive description of house common spaces.

In the focus group discussions, comments varied according to class standing. Students who are in their first or second year at the college tend to describe the system in very positive terms, whereas juniors and seniors tend to have a more complex understanding that includes awareness of the negative outcomes produced by the current housing system.

Limitations of the House System

Despite the generally positive terms used to describe the current house system, students raised concerns about its limitations. These concerns range from a sense of isolation to the influence of the quality of day-to-day house life on a student’s ability to thrive at Smith. The most profoundly influential factor in the quality of students' lives at Smith is the degree to which they feel a part of their house community. Students who describe feeling very connected to their community, and see that mirrored in those around them, speak of the system in glowing terms. For the most part, these students do not see the need for change and want things to remain as they are. Students who have experienced frustration with their house community at one time or another—or have observed others struggle with this experience—talk about the challenge of living in a community where leaving the house is not viewed as an option (too few spaces available elsewhere, the sense that other communities have formed and will not easily accept newcomers, etc.).

A number of students spoke about the isolation that can occur in the current housing system. Members of a house may know each other well but lack substantial interaction beyond the house. There is little talk of interaction among or between houses. Students describe interaction between houses as resisted, best illustrated in houses with shared (consolidated) dining facilities where students still sit in groups segregated by house. Even when frequent interaction is possible, the definition and tradition of house life (i.e., people who eat together) minimizes inter-house relationships. Some students described connections with students in their major as another form of non-house based grouping that offsets the isolation of the house community, but it was not a universal experience. Athletics, theater, student government and student organizations operate this way for some students, but juniors and seniors were especially likely to describe observing or feeling a sense of isolation in houses, recognizing that the house community was tight-knit, but at a cost of participation in a larger set of communities.

While isolation is a facet of house community life, so too is a lack of anonymity. House life can become too intense for some students (in the sense that everyone knows everyone else’s business), leaving them with little place to turn to find relief, even temporarily. Students describe the need to leave the house to reduce the stress of house life but acknowledge there are too few places to go on the campus. In this context, students find the idea of smaller common spaces, in addition to the large first floor common spaces, attractive. Moreover, one student suggested the smaller common spaces would facilitate a variety of programming that could occur to create choices for students in house events, and avoid the displacement of students that currently occurs when events take place in the only common space in the house. The Campus Center should also provide a welcome alternative for students.

Students' Perceptions of Living Options

Suites and Apartments. Some students, especially juniors and seniors, liked the idea of increasing the variety of housing options. There was significant interest in suites and apartments. The concept of suites (2- 4 bedrooms around a common bathroom and sitting/living room) was very attractive to students of all class standings and ages. However, many indicated that as students developed and matured, so too did their interest in a more independent style of living. The idea that suites and apartment living options would be available for some juniors and seniors, and traditional houses for first years and sophomores, was strongly supported.

Kitchens. Many students expressed a desire for kitchens and were largely dissatisfied with the current “kitchenettes” which have limited functionality. Students wanted full kitchens in more houses, although they did not support placing kitchens in suites. Kitchen facilities would enhance community and would also afford students the opportunity to add variety to their diets.

Theme living. Special interest or theme living was also of interest to students, but was not as strongly endorsed as suite/apartment style living and was met with some wariness. Some students were attracted by the idea of living based on special or thematic interest, while many felt such a style of living would be too isolating or would interfere with the “getting away from academic pressure” that house life provides. (Several students liked house life for that reason -- it felt like going home, a refuge from daily academic stress.)

Co-op Housing. Co-op housing is defined as a living situation in which residents assume responsibility for managing all aspects of the living environment, including purchasing food, cooking, and cleaning the kitchens. One student said that co-op housing should be increased, but that was countered almost immediately by another whose opinion was that co-op housing was popular because there were too few other living options. This interchange reveals both the desire among students for different kinds of living options, and the acknowledgement that too few exist. Students mention the Friedman apartments but say that with so few spaces realistically available, the only remaining options are co-ops. Students can envision this type of housing expanding because no special facilities (as in apartment style construction) are necessarily required. However, while there is some level of interest in co-ops, it may be as a result of limited options.

First Year Housing. While the majority of students did not support the idea of first year housing, one student, who currently lives in a senior house, thought that being with others having the same experience was positive. Other students agreed, noting that first years did better socially and academically when able to interact and form friendships with older peers. Students generally talked positively about their own first year experience and interaction with non-first year students, and juniors and seniors reported they enjoyed interacting with first years. However, many students acknowledged that a de facto separation by class exists in many houses based on the location of double rooms, in which a large number of first years are housed. Often these rooms are located on the top floor of a house, particularly in the Quad, so this floor frequently becomes the "first year floor." Students thought this was the best of both worlds because, from their perspective, there is close community among first years living together as well as positive interaction with juniors and seniors living elsewhere in the house.

Block Housing. Students were somewhat confused by the concept of “block housing” whereby students move as a group to the same or another house occupying a set number of rooms. Students who wanted to leave their houses due to poor facilities but enjoyed many of their housemates thought the idea was very attractive. Others felt it would have a negative impact by creating cliques. Although students acknowledge there is some ability to do that in the current system over time and with luck, they were reluctant to endorse the concept.

Room Selection. Students indicated that members of their houses felt the only fair way for rooms to be selected was for everyone individually to have to re-select a room in the house. This seemed to reflect the perception that rooms varied in quality and desirability. It is worth noting that little discussion occurred about moving to other houses, reflecting the current system’s disadvantaging of those who would do so. Students acknowledged, and several readily described, the difficulties of moving out of one's house. There was some mention of students who wish to leave a house having to endure the "TBA" experience ("to be assigned"). This occurs for students who wish to either move to a specific house or simply leave their own, but find no spaces are available for them during the spring room selection process. These students are placed in a "to be assigned" status by the housing coordinator who attempts to place them in their requested house, or as near as possible, over the summer. Students are not guaranteed their desired house and, especially during years of high student occupancy, many students are forced to wait for most of the summer before finding out their fall room assignment. The difficulty of leaving the house, coupled with the perceived difficulty of fitting in to a new house community, act together to induce students to remain in the house to which they were first assigned. The structure and operation of the current room selection process disadvantages those students who for whatever reason wish to consider a change in house, and advantages those who wish to remain in place. (See Appendix 8 for a description of the lottery process.)

Faculty Involvement in Residential Life

Students were unclear about what role faculty could play in residential life and approached the idea with trepidation. A few liked the idea that faculty could participate more in programming shaped by theme living, but several did not want faculty to be in the residence area a significant amount of time. At one point, a facilitator noted that some colleges or universities have thematic living programs in which faculty live in residence. Several students quickly jumped in to say they wouldn’t want that. A few indicated they are more conscious of their behavior around faculty and wouldn’t feel relaxed, others thought it would interfere with student self-governance, and still others thought faculty wouldn’t want it either.

Given the educational mission of residential life, the absence of unprompted conversation about the role of academic life and faculty in the residential experience was notable. Students perceive the houses and the residential life experience as largely—and often intentionally—apart from academic life and faculty. For some students it is this very separateness that permits them to relax after the rigors of classes and other academic demands. For others, it has yet to occur to them (or yet to be suggested) that an appropriate interweaving of academic life and out-of-class life can yield enjoyment, as well as intellectual and personal development. Students for the most part enjoy their interactions with faculty during teas or at occasional dinners as part of the House Fellows program. A few—not surprisingly juniors and seniors—desire interaction with faculty not only around common interests but also to learn more about them (and adult life). While students do not have preconceived expectations about interaction with faculty, they seem to appreciate what interaction they do have. However, there does not appear to be an understanding of or set of expectations about what type of faculty interaction and involvement in the residential life experience is possible and desirable. Even after the focus group facilitators explained the educational mission of residential life in a liberal arts college, questions asking students to discuss what type of housing options and facilities would support high quality faculty interaction were met with little response.

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

The findings from interviews with the focus groups reinforce those of the Housing and Dining Survey. The key findings from both research activities include:

There are many positive aspects of house-based life that students enjoy and from which they derive educational, social and emotional benefits.

In its current state, the housing system limits students’ engagement in the larger Smith community and beyond. It creates a house community that is often isolated from other houses and other aspects of Smith life and is removed from academic and intellectual engagement. The system of choosing houses and rooms advantages those who wish to remain in place and disadvantages those who seek something different.

Students, especially juniors and seniors, are interested in increased housing options in the form of suites and apartments. Students desire additional more flexible common spaces, and want full kitchen facilities to supplement individual dietary needs and interests as well as create community.

Students are unsure of the role of faculty and academic life in the residential experience. They are unaware of the possibilities for faculty involvement and the positive outcomes to be gained and thus tend to focus on a limited number of negative outcomes (e.g., increased academic pressure). When discussing faculty, students seem genuinely interested in increased interaction but have little idea about how that can happen and what form it would take.

PROPOSALS OF THE HOUSING OPTIONS SUBCOMMITTEE

Basic tenets:

Acknowledge and maintain rewarding aspects of traditional housing.

Acknowledge that traditional housing does not meet all students' needs for four years.

Expand options for other modes of housing – especially apartments, co-ops and suites.

Room selection process should allow choice and ease of movement among houses.

Recommendations:

Mission

Housing Options

Theme Based Living

Structure of
Residence Life
Staffing

Dining Options

Conclusion

Appendices

 
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