Housing communities address student concerns

by Claudia Bernstein | 10/26/18 2:45am

by Michael Lin / The Dartmouth

Established in the fall of 2016 as part of the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative, the housing communities have become a key source of community and involvement for many students. However, in the system’s first few years, students have raised concerns about its initial roll-out. Some, but not all, have been tackled and resulted in changes to operations. 

According to West House professor Ryan Hickox, the purpose of the house communities is threefold: “They are to create more intellectual engagement in residential life, they are to create a better sense of continuity among the students in their residential experience and to create a general sense of community,” Hickox said.

While the house communities have not deviated from these overarching goals that have been in place since the system’s inception, there has been an effort to address student critiques and concerns by each house’s student executive boards, West House historian Alexis Colbert ’19 said.

“The criticisms we are most able to address are the ones about what kinds of events people want to see,” Colbert said. “We think a lot about how to create a good balance of events that are social, and events that are intellectual, and how to create a space that is both a living community and a social community.”

Hickox noted that programming for the house communities has shifted from more lecture-oriented events to open discussions and social events in order to encourage more engagement, a change that was made in response to criticism of the lecture-oriented events. Events such as the House Cup, where members of houses compete against each other in intramural sports such as flag football, as well as the design of intricate house crests have resulted in a greater sense of connection to one’s house community, according to Colbert.

Colbert added that some of the common student complaints are harder to address. These include the concern that there is a disparity in the quality of the house communities because certain residence halls on campus are newer and seem better located than others.

Colbert also noted that because the Class of 2019 transitioned into the housing system after their freshman year, many of her peers felt limited by the fact that they could only choose to live with other students in their assigned house. Students also felt they had been randomly assigned membership to a community that they did not choose, Hickox said. For this reason, the Class of 2019 and older classes may have felt less connected to their house communities, especially having already developed their spaces at Dartmouth before the house system’s inception, Hickox noted.

Despite complaints from students about being randomly assigned to a housing community, Hickox said there were certain benefits. 

“The beauty of being part of a community that’s not self-selected but deliberately and totally random is exposure to a complete cross-section of the student body,” Hickox said.

  According to Colbert, one of the greatest benefits of the system is its access to both graduate students and the house professors. 

 “Because your house professor isn’t chosen based off of what department they teach in, this gives you an opportunity to have access to a professor outside the classroom who you may not otherwise meet,” Colbert said. “If it wasn’t for the housing system I would have never have met Professor Hickox. I meet with him for West House every Sunday. He’s written recommendation letters for me, I’ve met his family and I have developed a relationship with him that has become a mentorship,” she added.

Colbert also noted that having house professors live on campus makes them especially accessible. Allen House professor Janice McCabe said that she values the opportunity to be on a meal plan and eat in student dining locations, and that some of her most meaningful conversations with students happen in these less formal settings.

House communities have created more opportunities for leadership within each community, and more students have gotten involved over time, according to McCabe. 

  “I came on in summer of 2017, and I feel like the system has become much more vibrant and student-initiated just in that time,” McCabe said. “I feel like students are taking more ownership of the housing communities and making it more their own which has been really amazing to see,” she added.

  According to Colbert, student involvement is something that has been emphasized and encouraged within all the house communities. 

“All our executive board meetings are open to West House students whether they are on the board or not,” Colbert said. “If you’re there you can vote on anything we’re voting on, you have full right as a member of West House to be a part of these discussions and help make those decisions,” she added.

Colbert noted that as part of the effort to improve the housing system, the West House executive board visited Yale University earlier this term and stayed in one of Yale’s residential colleges. The residential college systems at Yale and Harvard serve a similar role to the house communities at Dartmouth.

“It was really cool to stay there and talk to students about how connected they are to their residential college,” Colbert said. “All of the colleges have their own dining halls. These are things that really influence the sense of community there and they’re things that we don’t have currently at Dartmouth but they aren’t things that are impossible,” Colbert said. 

She added that large-scale developments will most certainly take time. 

“Seeing as this system at Dartmouth has only existed for three years we might not see these kinds of developments for a while, “ she said. “Yale has had their college system for over 100 years and they have a lot more money and a lot more infrastructure.”

Hickox noted that the residential systems at other institutions faced similar challenges to Dartmouth’s housing communities at their inception. 

“If you go back and read the old issues of the Harvard Crimson from that time, there are criticisms that are very similar to a bunch of what we hear now,” Hickox said.

Hickox also noted that the plans for a new residence hall create the potential for spaces to be constructed that are compatible with the housing communities. 

“The plan is to build a new dorm [where House Center A currently is], and when that is built, to then begin renovating the existing space. And of course once you do that, there’s a lot of opportunity for really tailoring things to work with a residential house community in mind,” Hickox said.

In addition to creating community and encouraging student involvement and leadership, continuity in students’ residential experiences across their years at Dartmouth has been an overarching goal of the system. According to Hickox, the system originally sought out to address the issue of students moving between residence halls frequently as a result of the D-plan. Returning back to campus after an off or abroad term and seeing familiar faces in residence halls is something the house communities have helped foster, Hickox said.

The residential communities, in some ways, also provide a similar continuity to that of the Greek system, according to McCabe. However, she also noted that while the residential communities may be the main source of community for some students on campus, for most it is simply another source of community among many, which may include community through clubs, teams and Greek organizations.

Hickox noted that among those students who are very involved with their residential communities, many are also affiliated with Greek organizations.

“[The house communities] provide continuity in that it’s a place to return to each term and a place to return to after graduating. Greek organizations also have a place to return to, but many other organizations and clubs don’t have that same sense of place that the housing communities do,” McCabe said.