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Series of changes to affect residential life

12 mins read

As students begin looking for roommates and planning out their housing situations for the 2015-16 academic year, some have begun to raise concerns regarding changes in the housing process and in Swarthmore residential life at large.

The most public and transparent of these changes is the option for upperclassmen to opt to live in substance-free housing, which will be offered first as a hall in lower level Dana, and if enough interest is shown, as another hall in lower level Hallowell. According to the college website, the creation of substance-free housing was based on demonstrated student interest in a residential space where the possession or use of alcohol, controlled substances and tobacco products by residents or their guests is prohibited. Resident Assistant Lihu Ben-Ezri-Ravin ’16 said in an email that the creation of this hall depends on the amount of student interest, and said that if fewer than fourteen students indicate interest in a substance-free hall, it would prove difficult to follow through with an entire hall designated as substance-free.

An online poll administered by the Phoenix, however, indicates that the student interest in substance-free housing is less than the administration suspects. Out of 272 respondents, 39 percent believe that the addition of substance-free housing would improve residential life at the college. This percentage is likely to be larger than the actual number of students who would be interested in living on a substance-free hall, but the exact number of students intending to opt-in remains unclear. These results also contrast sharply with a poll run by the Office of Student Engagement, which said that over 78 percent of students suggested that substance-free housing was necessary in a recent residential experience survey.

The announcement of substance-free housing on campus also raised concerns that RAs would be forced to play a more involved role in enforcing college policy on residence halls, a shift that many at Swarthmore perceive to be detrimental to residential life. The logic in these concerns is that on substance-free halls, RAs would be held more responsible for ensuring public spaces retain truly free of substances than they currently are on regular residence halls. However, these concerns appear to be unsubstantiated.

“The RA will be the one facilitating this community, and likely will spend more time than other RAs establishing community standards and working with students for whom this may be a problem,” Ben-Ezri-Ravin wrote. He explained that enforcement will not involve disciplinary action from the administration, but rather dialogue between the student, the RA, and potentially other affected community members and Residential Community Coordinators.

“Students will be free to do whatever they want on campus, as long as their substance use does not interfere with the hall in anyway,” he wrote. “So, going to a party won’t be a problem. Coming back drunk and breaking things or vomiting on the floor will be.”

Student reactions to the addition of substance-free housing have been generally positive. Joaquin Delmar ’18 lauded the decision as a way for students who feel uncomfortable or medically affected by a particular substance to have better housing options, but questioned its necessity for students who would simply prefer not to live with substances on their hall.

“For the common student, I think that people should be exposed to the realities of a college campus and the world. People should grow and learn to make decisions for themselves; part of that is choosing to responsibly learn from a substance[d] world,” he said in an email.

Mindy Cheng ’18 also believes the new option was generally a good idea, even though it did not appeal to her personally.

“I like the idea of substance-free housing, but I like the freedom of non-substance-free housing. I wouldn’t live there but I think it’s good to offer that option to people,” she said.

Another, less visible, shift in residential life policies is the anticipated addition of first-year residential halls with the arrival of the class of 2019. The Office of Student Engagement confirmed the plans to create first-year housing, and explained in an email that the change stems from the need to provide an intentional residential experience that would ease first-years’ transition and help them navigate the college environment better.

These new first-year “wings” would be piloted in sections of both Willets and Mary Lyon residence halls and will contain roughly 20 first-year students each. However, the OSE made it clear that this would not create exclusively first-year dorms. They were quick to recognize mixed-year housing as a fundamental aspect of the Swarthmore experience. But they also explained that they needed to be responsive to the need for programming that builds skills related to diversity and inclusion, which they believe should also be a fundamental aspect of the Swarthmore experience. They explained that they need structures to allow that work to take place, implying these first-year “wings” would be a part of this process.

The OSE also pointed out that this change is a direct response to perceived student interests. In the same survey the OSE referenced above, 79 percent of the student population said they would like to see RAs and intentional programming dedicated specifically to first-years. However, this data also contrasts sharply with the Phoenix-administered poll, in which 75% percent of respondents believed that first-year housing would alter the first-year experience at Swarthmore for the worse. A discrepancy between the surveys may have been caused by a misunderstanding of the type of intentional programming the respondents of the OSE survey believed would be beneficial to residential life at Swarthmore.

The speculation over first-year housing has sparked a significant amount of backlash and mobilization on-campus, concentrated mostly amongst the Class of 2018. A group of members of the Class of 2018, led by Sam Wallach Hanson and Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland, have mobilized a campaign against the institution of first-year housing.

“There are a lot of people up in arms about this … [and] I feel like a lot of people feel left in the dark about this, and I think people want there to be some student input in the process like Swarthmore purportedly believes in,” Wallach Hanson said in an e-mail. On Monday evening, Wallach Hanson and other current freshmen met with Assistant Director of Residential Communities Isaiah Thomas in order to express their concerns with the proposed changes.

“We got very little definitively, [and] he gave us a huge run-around,” Wallach Hanson said. According to him, Thomas said in the meeting that the administration is currently considering five freshman halls: three in Willets and two in Mary Lyon, which would be about 25 percent of the freshman class.

“Basically, it was hugely unhelpful and he said he would talk to Rachel Head … but it sound[ed] like he’s not going to do anything about what we were saying,” Wallach Hanson said. After the meeting, Wallach Hanson and others launched an electronic petition and invited both current Swarthmore students and alumni to sign against the proposed first-year housing. The petition argues that immediately implementing such a large change and moving a fourth of the incoming first-year class into exclusive housing will act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, where students not on a first-year hall will feel like they are missing out on the chance to be with exclusively other freshmen. The petition also warns against the loss of essential inter-class relationships that form as a result of mixed-class housing as it currently exists at Swarthmore, and mentions frustrations with the current blocking options for the Class of 2018.  In slightly over 24 hours, the petition acquired 525 signatures from students of various classes and alumni, indicating a noticeable amount of opposition to the institution of first-year halls.

The OSE recognized the significant number of students and alumni opposed to the changes in first-year housing, and said in an e-mail that the open letter spells out a variety of concerns and that hearing student concerns is always their priority. They assured the Phoenix in an e-mail that these concerns will be taken into account when the housing changes are implemented, but that some of what is outlined is also exaggerating what are relatively minor changes to the residential experience. The OSE emphasized that it did ask for student feedback through a residential survey, has vetted opinions through focus groups, used RAs as sounding boards, and intends to speak to the Student Government Organization about the changes and hear their opinions as well.

Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development Lili Rodriguez also had strong opinions regarding the petition.

“One of the points I would challenge in the open letter, is the implication that this is a ‘tight-knit’ community, that everything is working as well as it could be. Some students may feel that way, but I know a large segment that do not, that want change and want to be a part of a community that thinks critically about diversity, social justice, and hope to build an even stronger community. These changes provide us a platform for that work,” she said in an e-mail.

It remains to be seen if the proposed changes to housing for the 2015-2016 academic year will be carried through in their entirety or change in response to student demand.

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