A House Is Not A Home

A House Is Not A Home

Can Columbians have a community when they don't even know their neighbors?

Published on February 18, 2015

“After freshman year, housing is such a bitch.”

Barnard sophomore Victoria Lee puts it best. It’s a nearly universal sentiment at Columbia and Barnard that housing can be troublesome. Living on campus poses all sorts of problems that students from both colleges know all too well. These range from trying to foster a sense of community in massive dorms, to dealing with the logistics of securing living accommodations.

Lee, who has lived in the Barnard Quad and in apartment-style housing in Barnard’s 110th Street dorm, says, “The freshman quad is probably the best living option Barnard has in regard to having a sense of community.”

“But after sophomore year,” she says, “like in the apartment- and suite-style dorms, you don’t have to see the people you live nearby as much. And in the end, the housing process is a big scramble to try to arrange a suite combination.”

And it’s not just Lee—first-years, upperclassmen, resident advisers, and residents alike spoke about how they feel that Columbia residence halls often lack social cohesion. Columbia students feel disconnected from their living spaces.

So, with a frustration as common as housing, the question poses itself: How do some residence halls successfully foster a sense of community, and why do others fail to bring their residents together?

Decisions, Decisions

We generalize about Columbia housing being devoid of community, but it goes without saying that this applies to some dorms more than others. Catherine Jenkinson, a Columbia College junior and an RA in Broadway Hall, points out that dorms have undeniable reputations among students.

“Each dorm has its own distinct character,” Jenkinson says in an email. “McBain is Carman 2.0, the suite-style dorms (like EC suites and Ruggles and Hogan) are the hubs of nightlife, and Broadway and Wien are quiet dorms full of residents who, in large part, picked into the building by themselves in search of secluded singles.”

Not all residence halls have the same obstacles in regard to forming communities either. The factors to consider are as myriad as the dorms themselves. But there are some qualities that stand out as more important than others.

According to first-years interviewed for this article, first-year dorms with lounges on every floor—like Carman, John Jay, McBain, and the Barnard Quad (Hewitt, Brooks, Reid, and Sulzberger halls)—have the fewest issues with developing bonds between residents, regardless of common interests or quality of the buildings themselves. Meanwhile, dorms that are intended to promote mingling between residents, like the Living Learning Community (Hartley and Wallach halls), paradoxically, have the most trouble forming connections among students.

Leo O’Brien, a first-year at Columbia College who lives on John Jay 14, explains that his floor has bonded quickly despite the single-style setup, mainly because of the way they utilize their lounge and include other floors in their socialization.

“People on the 15th floor also come down, because they don’t have a lounge. It’s a great community environment, there are people who come up from other floors and hang out, and I think it’s easy for a lot of people who don’t really hang out with us as much to come in, and everyone is very welcoming about it,” he says.

O’Brien says that, although it’s unlikely for a floor to be completely cohesive, the setup of John Jay at least gives students every opportunity to participate in floor bonding, if they so want.

“Obviously you’re not gonna have the whole floor, like, everyone knows everyone, but there are a select few people who don’t really hang around, but I don’t think its because they can’t. I think its because they’re just choosing to hang out with other folks. Overall, though, most floors I know are very tight,” he says.

Among the five Columbia first-year dorms, John Jay has perhaps the strongest hall identity. The corridor-style floors, with centrally located lounges, often give rise to floors like O’Brien’s, where people find the time and space to hang out with their neighbors.

While effective use of lounges is essential to uniting floormates, other residence halls with the specific purpose of building communities fail to serve their true purpose. The Living Learning Community, for example, does not develop the kind of family it is intended to because of the nature of the residence itself. With both doubles and singles, students are not united in a desire to mingle like those in John Jay, and with both freshmen and upperclassmen, students are also not united in a freshman-year eagerness to make new friends like all-first-year dorms provide.

Evie Sobczak, a School of Engineering and Applied Science first-year living in Wallach this year, lives on the Res. Inc. floor of the building, where entrepreneurial-minded students live together. She explains how she has not found a particular community on her floor despite the students’ common passions.

“The Res. Inc. program doesn’t actually do anything geared towards entrepreneurship and the teachers don’t really help at all, which kind of defeats the purpose of it,” she says. “It’s the people that create this community. My RA helped as well because she’s always in the lounge and seems to genuinely care about us.”

The quiet, less socially integrated reputation of the Living Learning Community buildings extends beyond the Res. Inc. floor. Maya Mallaby-Kay, a Columbia College first-year who also lives in Wallach, agrees that the dorm lacks a sense of community.

“The fact that it’s singles and doubles makes it harder to make friends, because if it’s a whole floor of singles, people want to make friends, like in John Jay or Carman, you have four people who live very close together, so naturally they’re going to hang out together. Whereas in Wallach, you don’t get that as much,” she says.

Though Jenkinson likes the calmness of living in Broadway and has chosen to remain an RA in that hall next year, she also says that McBain seems to be one of the few housing options that offers the same community atmosphere as a first-year dorm.

“Perhaps McBain is the most first-year-like residence hall for upperclassmen,” she says. “When I go on duty rounds in McBain, I am always surprised by the number of people gathering in the musty hallways, or standing in each other’s rooms. It seems that McBain has managed to create an atmosphere in which people feel compelled to get to know one another. This may be a result of effective programming by the RAs of the building, or maybe it’s simply that McBain is a reduplication of Carman, mostly doubles full of the people who lived in Carman last year, eager to create a similar experience.”

Lee explains that the difference between first-year and upperclassman dorms at Barnard is similar to that of Columbia dorms.

“Last year I lived in the Quad, which is good because you see everyone when you go anywhere,” she says.

Lee lived in-residence with students from her first-year seminar, which is a housing option for Barnard first-years. She says this overlap between housing and classes was what gave her the greatest sense of community.

“It’s one thing to live with these people, and people still develop strong bonds,” she says, “but … it’s also good because, when you can talk to them about homework and readings, it gives you something to talk about with hallmates.”

Alex Zen-Ruffinen, a first-year at Barnard, also enjoys the closeness of her floor in the Barnard quad.

“I think the idea of having all floors connected is good, but I know not all floors are really bonded. My floor is really bonded, though, the common room is a huge waste of space, because it’s badly ergonomically designed and does not provide a hangout area,” she says.

Lee moved in her second year from the Quad to apartment-style Barnard housing on 110th Street. This system offers rooms for students in buildings that include both dormitories and apartments of non-Columbia-affiliated Upper West Side residents.

While these dorms offer more amenities than all-student dorms, they do not encourage students to socialize with one another. Lee explains that her apartment-style housing this year is less interknit than her seminar hallmates were in her experience living in the quad last year.

“You see the people that live in your suite, so I’m very close with the people in my suite, but people that live in other suites, I don’t know that well. And I don’t think that’s going to change.”

In dorms like Broadway, there is not only a lack of community, but actual resentment between some residents. Students live there for the facility itself, seeking seclusion and distance rather than a typical college dorm community atmosphere.

“In places like Broadway, residents often merely coexist within the same four walls instead of knowing each other or feeling some sort of community obligation like they do elsewhere,” Jenkinson says. “As a result, Broadway (and other dorms like it) have become the land of passive-aggressive notes on the walls telling fellow residents to stop smoking marijuana, trash left everywhere except in the trash room, laundry rooms full of people’s dirty and clean clothes left behind for others to step over, and even (disgustingly) this year, excrement on the floor of the hallway.”

“It’s a ‘leave me alone’ atmosphere that breeds discontentment and anger and even, sometimes, aggression,” he says.

RAs and the ResLife Role

Resident advisers come in all varieties. Some are particularly invested in making their residents best friends, while others prefer not to force anything and let their floors socialize to their own liking.

Matthew Michaelides, a Columbia College senior who transferred to Columbia after spending his freshman year at the University of Chicago, described the difference between the way RAs were very involved at UChicago versus the detachment he has seen in RAs of Columbia upperclassman dorms.

“Something that took me a while to get used to, that people here don’t realize, is how removed the RAs are from student life,” he says. “Unless you have a personal relationship with RAs, you see them a few times a year. The RAs have a much bigger role when you’re a first-year here, but, after that, you don’t see RAs very much. Compared to my freshman year [at UChicago], here it’s strange to not have a personal relationship.”

It’s not that Columbia has no invested RAs, but that some are less enthusiastic than others. Floors with RAs who are particularly determined to befriend their residents (and help their residents befriend one another) end up having the most united hallmates and best community vibe, while floors with less-involved RAs do not develop the same bonds.

For Mallaby-Kay, who will be an RA in John Jay next year, knowing particularly invested RAs was key to inspiring her to apply to be an RA for the 2015–2016 school year.

“The reason I applied to be an RA was because I know some RAs who are really great, and, because of them, their floor hangs out together,” she says. “I know people who were very close with someone who committed suicide, and I know the RA did an amazing job of making sure they were okay and helping them talk about it, and I don’t know anyone who would have dealt with it better.”

“I think I notice the difference a lot between floors who have RAs who are active and know their floor and floors that don’t, because floors that don’t have that simply don’t communicate as much,” she adds. “I wanted to be part of building a community on a floor.”

However, some communities seem to form on floors regardless of RA encouragement. According to O’Brien, the closeness of his John Jay floor was a result of the first-year eagerness to make friends as quickly as possible, along with the effective usage of his floor’s lounge.

“Our RA had a little bit to do with getting us closer as a floor. In the beginning of the year, especially, he tried to make us closer,” he says.

“Ultimately though, while I think he did a great job, that’s not what did it. In a whole floor of singles, everyone wants to make friends and the lounge is a great tool for that. The Carman lounge is a place at the end of the hall to do work, but the John Jay lounge is a great spot. If you want to get lunch with someone, just go to the lounge and see who’s there. We got a floor community going at a surprisingly fast rate.”

Upperclassmen feel a little differently about the necessity and effectiveness of RAs in residence halls.

When asked about the role of RAs in upperclassmen housing, Corey Hammond, a Columbia College junior, returned to the limitations RAs face without having a lounge as a tool to encourage mingling on their floors.

“Our RAs try their best in getting us together for events, and I sense that the students are open to getting to know new people in the building, but again, without a lounge, this can be pretty tough,” he says.

Lee agrees that while RAs try their best to bring people together in Barnard housing, it’s especially tough to help upperclassmen make new friends in apartment-style residences.

“The RAs are trying to work on it, and get people to talk to each other and stuff. But it’s hard because people have different schedules, people are part of different programs. But the RAs try. There are only three RAs for God-knows-how-many students, so it’s a little more relaxed,” she says.

Though many upperclassman dorms have lots of other perks, lacking a lounge and communal bathrooms or kitchens often restricts students from being able to feel especially attached to their residence halls.

“Attendance at RA programs is low, and interest in meeting new people is often even lower,” Jenkinson says. “Naturally, this is an enormous generalization, and there are many exceptions, but in my experience as an RA in Broadway over the past two years, the biggest challenge has been trying to foster community on the floor. It has even been a struggle for everyone to learn the names of the people who live in the rooms nearest to them.”

Jenkinson explains how the Office of Residential Life does try to promote community-building, but that it is the approach the entire University takes toward residential life that limits effective social interaction in some dorms.

“I’m not sure what Residential Life can do to improve community in the other residence halls (like Broadway), but perhaps a start might be to rethink its approach to the residential experience,” she says.

The Grass is Always Greener

Dorm pride may be foreign to Columbia, but it’s not impossible. Schools like Yale, University of Chicago, and Notre Dame have found an alternative in the residential college system, an option that students there say fosters community in a way that we don’t see here at Columbia.

Competing in inter-dorm sports, knowing the names of every person in their residence halls, and passing on house-specific traditions from one class to the next are essential parts of the culture at schools that use the residential college system.

It’s no secret that Columbia has very little school spirit, and that is mirrored in students’ lack of enthusiasm about housing. Sarah Chapin, a sophomore at Yale, links Yale’s residential college system with the school’s ability to foster school spirit.

“Overall school college spirit is also a big deal on campus,” she says in an email. “Everyone here has a lot of Yale gear, but people also have a lot of residential college spirit wear as well. From t-shirts, to bags, to socks, to fleece jackets with our crest on it, people are showing off pride in their college!”

Notre Dame has the same kind of gear, competitions, and spirit as Yale. Students treat their dorms like fraternities and sororities, as they are separated by gender and have huge rivalries among the residence halls.

Emily Casey, a first-year at Notre Dame who serves on her hall council, explains this culture of Notre Dame housing by comparing it to Greek life. “Everyone has dorm pride and section pride and even dining hall pride, depending on where you live on campus. Everyone will tell you their dorm is the best dorm. I would call it a sorority, honestly.”

Michaelides explains how he enjoyed the tight-knit community at UChicago, which includes multiple residential houses within each residence hall. There, students become especially bonded to their houses, and he says that it is easier for first-years to make immediate homes.

“At Columbia, housing is just a lot less centralized. People are less attached to the places they live,” he says.

Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a residential community at Columbia that boasts any of the pride that Casey and Chapin see in their schools. It might occur at a fraternity or a special-interest community, but certainly not in regular housing. Where Yale, Notre Dame, and UChicago succeed is in giving students a reason to identify with their housing.

Dana Scott, who transferred from UChicago to Columbia, then back to UChicago, and is now a sophomore, thinks the UChicago housing system also encourages a better community feeling on campus.

“I would definitely say Columbia, as a community, doesn’t have a distinct tight-knit feel that UChicago has,” she says. “At UChicago, there are more mechanisms to build community that you don’t have to actively look for. At Columbia, you have to find your way a lot more.”

Many students feel the same way about making friends at Columbia, too. Because students lack an attachment to their residence halls, and it can be difficult making friends through classes alone, students often turn to extracurriculars to become the foundation of their social lives. Scott saw this in her one short year at Columbia.

“From the first-years I interacted with, it seems like housing wasn’t a big part of their lives and not where they met most of the people they interact with. At Columbia, people organize their social lives around their extracurriculars,” she says, “whereas at UChicago, people also socialize with peers in their extracurriculars, but they, at least, have the option to organize their social lives around the people they live with.”

UChicago also has more options for students to live in either a larger or smaller dorm, based on the residential experience they are looking for.

“There’s also a lot of variety that the UChicago system has. You can kind of self-select your preferences before you come here between smaller, tighter-knit [houses] and bigger houses:

Twenty-five or 30 kids to 120 or so. You can find a tight-knit experience if you want that, or a bigger, typical dorm system,” Scott says. “At Columbia, if you’re a first-year, your options are almost exclusively big dorms.”

There’s another part of the residential housing system that is useful at many schools: students go through orientation with the students whom with they live. Instead of being grouped with random undergraduates from all across campus, à la NSOP, they remain in their residential colleges to get to know the students they live with, first and foremost.

“The way UChicago structures orientation helps a lot,” Scott says. “I had two very different orientation experiences. My UChicago orientation experience was with people from my house. It wasn’t like NSOP, with random people from all across the incoming class.”

“Structuring orientation to live and interact with the same people you’ll live with all year immediately helps create a sense of community so you know and are comfortable with 50 or more people by the end of your first week on campus,” she adds.

Casey also thinks it was incredibly useful to get closer with her hallmates first during orientation.

“We have a really extensive orientation jam-packed with activities to get to know the people we live with,” she says. “They emphasize that for the next four years, these girls are your sisters, and they enforce that you’re a family, and you have to act like it.”

At Notre Dame and Yale, students also have the option to transfer into other residential colleges from within the one they are originally randomly placed. Because of this, Chapin and Casey both say that their schools’ housing systems do not socially restrict students in any way or make first-years feel stuck if they truly desire to live elsewhere.

However, there are still some drawbacks to some of these residential college systems. For example, at UChicago, the houses are filled with mostly first-years, so upperclassmen are more detached from student residential life. Also, people are often socially limited to interacting with students in their house, so they have trouble branching out.

At University of California, San Diego, houses are sorted by prospective majors, which makes it difficult for students to switch housing if their academic interests change.

But, according to Camille Lew, a Columbia College senior who transferred from UCSD and lived in a residential college for one year there, the problems with UCSD’s residential colleges extended beyond just the fact that students were segregated by major. She says her house community was hamstrung simply by the architecture of the building.

“The thing with this building is it was built in the ’60s or ’70s, and it was designed so students could not congregate in large groups, so it was super antisocial,” Lew says. “Each suite was its own floor, so you only saw people in your own suite.”

In other words, Lew’s suite-style house kept floors isolated from each other, despite the mission of a residential house being to bring residents into a community. If that sounds familiar, it’s basically the same story Sobczak and Mallaby-Kay tell about Wallach.

This speaks to the difficulties that would face Columbia if it tried to institute a residential college system—its facilities are not designed to foster community. As much as a house system might seem like a magic bullet for our lack of community, there’s way more to think about than just how we organize our residents’ social lives. We have to consider where we’re making them live.

Due to space constraints, the residential college system would only be possible at Columbia if the University implemented something like the system that UChicago has, where there are multiple colleges housed in one building.

But even a Chicago-esque system could run into obstacles. Michaelides says one of the drawbacks of the UChicago colleges was the way upperclassmen segregated themselves from underclassmen.

“Once you start trying to mix four years of people, it’s harder to have social cohesion,” he says. “Third- and fourth-years don’t want to hang out with freshmen.”

Home Away From Home

Despite the seeming universality of student concerns regarding community in dorm buildings, this isn’t necessarily an aspect of Columbia’s character that all students are eager to change. With plenty of other ways to meet people on campus, not all students mind lacking special attachment to their residence halls.

“As an upperclassman who is very involved in clubs and sports (as is [the case] with majority of students in this building), I moved into Watt with a handful of friends, which has made my experience very positive here,” Hammond explains.

“Because Watt is for upperclassmen/women, the community atmosphere isn’t completely necessary,” he says. “If anything, I think the upperclassmen/women want to see the community atmosphere they experience in their earlier years extend out to the student body as a whole.”

“What I mean is that a first-year should apply what they experience in their residence hall (socializing, supporting neighbors in their endeavors, etc.) to the whole school by the time they reach junior, senior years.”

Mallaby-Kay also expresses the improbability of having a perfectly united building, or even individual floor, but likes the diversity of communities she has witnessed forming on floors.

“To a certain extent, you’re never going to have an entire building of students that know one another; they’re just too big. And you’re never going to have a floor that all hangs out together, because people have different personalities.”

“However, I’ve definitely noticed that floors bring people together,” Mallaby-Kay says. “On a lot of floors, there are people who hang out together who wouldn’t normally hang out together just because they live on the same floor, and I think thats really nice because you get to meet new people, and that’s what college is all about.”

*   *   *

At a school as rigorous as Columbia, it is both necessary and difficult for students to find a support system. Most find it eventually—in clubs and sports and class—but students also expect to find that support in their residential communities.

A host of consequences result when students feel alienated where they live. A dorm situation can make or break students’ social lives, mental health, sense of belonging, and general enjoyment and depth of their college experience.

Due to its location and the nature of living in the city, Columbia undergraduate housing isn’t conducive to students becoming close with their neighbors; naturally, one of the resulting common concerns is Columbia’s lack of school spirit and sense of community. We do not have a normal college campus residential life.

The city itself poses obstacles that may prove insurmountable to the community of a usual university. The lack of space is a huge issue—with many 15-story-high dormitories and often 40 or more students per floor, it can be difficult for undergraduates to become particularly attached to their living spaces. As a result, individual floors often become closer mini-communities than entire buildings, especially in first-year dorms where students share a common desire to make new friends in a new environment.

However, this housing system is not seen as a negative to all students; many find communities on their floor and only feel that they need that sense of community for their first year anyway, or have other communities on campus that they make their homes instead of their residence halls. Also, because many students come to Columbia looking for a typical urban residential experience, the concept of living in a detached apartment-like dormitory is not necessarily undesirable to many Columbia students.

The issue is not that students are incapable of coping with Columbia’s obstacles, but simply that it is more of a hassle than need be.

“People generally end up happy,” Lee says, “but the process is a struggle.”

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