Students respond to changes to residential life at Notre Dame
Courtney Becker | Monday, September 25, 2017
The announcement that the University will require students to live on campus for six semesters starting with the class of 2022 has been met with widespread reactions from students. At a town hall held Sept. 13, students raised concerns ranging from financial difficulties to a lack of support for students who feel alienated when it comes to residential life on campus.
Senior Rohit Fonseca, who moved off campus after his junior year, raised a question at the town hall about the administration’s support for students who feel alienated in dorms on campus.
“The root of the question [at the town hall] was that there are people who are left out in the housing system,” Fonseca said Sunday. “I don’t think that’s done intentionally, but that’s just the nature of [housing]. … So the root of the question was how much do we value the input of people that don’t agree or don’t appreciate some of the basic values that we have in the housing system?”
Fonseca said parietals and dorm Mass are aspects of the housing system students might take issue with. While University President Fr. John Jenkins said the University makes “no apologies” about its Catholic identity, Fonseca said he believes the question needs more consideration if Notre Dame is going to require students to live in dorms on campus for three years.
“There’s a variety of reasons why people feel marginalized from the halls or why people disagree with whatever the practices are in the halls,” he said. “ … I wasn’t expecting a head-on answer, but I don’t think I have the answer either, personally. I don’t pretend to know what it is, but I think it’s an important discussion to have, and I don’t think we have it enough.”
While Fonseca said he enjoyed his time as a resident of Fisher Hall on campus, he knows students who have had negative experiences in their dorms. Fonseca said he believes requiring these students to remain on campus could actually end up being detrimental to hall communities.
“I loved my time on campus, but I know — and I have specific people in mind — who really didn’t like their experience their experience in the halls at all,” he said. “ … A big part of community is that people want to be a part of it or choose to be a part of it. So if you’re forcing people to be a part of something they don’t want to be in, I don’t think it’s the best move.”
The biggest concern Hoffmann Harding said the administration has with the changes to residential life is their potential to drive students to move off campus as seniors for the sake of taking advantage of the ability to do so. Junior Hanna Zook, who lives off campus this year, said she does see potential for backlash against the requirement.
“First of all, it could drive away students who feel as though they will not fit into the dorm system,” Zook said in an email. “For example, for someone who is gender non-conforming, the idea of three years in a strictly-male or strictly-female dorm might seem like too much to handle. So we actually diminish our chances of growing diversity as everyone who commits to the University is someone who feels as though they can mesh into our dorm system. Second … the requirement may cause the opposite of what the administration intends by encouraging seniors to move off since it will be something exclusive to seniors.”
Senior Sean O’Brien, who has lived on campus throughout his entire time at Notre Dame, said he doesn’t believe the requirement will have as much of an effect as most students think.
“I don’t believe that this requirement will completely ruin the sense of community of [Notre Dame] like many people are saying it will,” he said in an email. “I believe that the overwhelmingly negative response is being blown out of proportion. Things will not be that different. To my knowledge, most students stay on campus six semesters. So, there will be some people that will be affected. However, as new students start coming in, this will just become the norm and no one will really know the difference.”
Another major question discussed at the town hall, which Zook initially raised, is whether or not the new six-semester requirement could potentially be harmful for students who have been sexually assaulted on campus. Zook said the requirement for students who have gone through the experience to remain on campus represents a “lack of empathy” for those students.
“Being assaulted or experiencing any type of trauma in a dorm has the potential to make someone never feel fully safe on campus again,” she said. “Living off campus decreases the chances of running into one’s attacker — since they are rarely expelled — and allows for a survivor to be in much more control of their environment. Requiring someone to stay on campus when they are no longer comfortable there is not only a complete lack of empathy on the part of the administration, it is a danger to the mental health and wellness of people who have already gone through awful things.”
Fonseca said the potential exceptions for survivor of sexual assault need to be determined before the requirement begins to affect students.
“Especially the sexual assault issue — obviously anything with sexual assault — it needs to be addressed,” he said. “If someone feels unsafe on campus and wants to move off for that reason — and I don’t think the University would block them. Erin Hoffmann Harding talked about potential waivers and things like that.”
While Hoffman Harding said at the town hall this conversation is one the administration will continue to have with students, Zook said the changes should not have been announced without an official solution to the problem.
“Saving a conversation for later isn’t adequate when the issue affects so many people,” Zook said.
One of the most common complaints from students about the six-semester requirement is that living on campus typically costs more money than living off campus. Zook said this factor played a major role in her decision to move off campus as a junior.
“Since I’m studying abroad next semester, I needed a way to somehow cut costs and start saving up,” she said. “ … I am saving literally thousands of dollars this semester, so going abroad would have been very difficult financially if I lived on campus. And although there are aspects of dorm life that I miss, I am overall much happier off campus.”
One suggestion raised by students at the town hall was staggering room and board pricing based on the quality of dorm facilities. This idea, Hoffmann Harding said at the town hall, would foster an environment that “would not be helpful to the integrated communities” the University is aiming for, a sentiment Fonseca said he agrees with.
“You would literally segregate the school by income — by family income — which I think is very dangerous,” he said. “So I do not think that staggering the housing prices is a good idea at all because people would know your socioeconomic background based on the hall you live in. So yeah, I think that would be a terrible idea.”
Two alternatives Fonseca said could be effective are decreasing the cost of room and board somewhat for upperclassmen and updating meal plans for seniors.
“I think the University should … look into ways to subsidize on-campus housing or perhaps giving a break and a slight reduction in room and board to upperclassmen to encourage them to stay on campus,” Fonseca said. “That’s, I think, a very viable option. Even a drop in $1,000 or $2,000 I think is a viable reason to stay on campus. And another thing they could do that I think we don’t do right now … a lot of people have swipes left over at the end of the week. And I think what we should do — and I think it makes perfect sense — is that all your swipes that are left over at the end of the week from your freshman through junior year, have those save up and then have that be your meal plan senior year.”
Zook said she appreciated that the initial email to students announcing these changes recognized flaws in residential life, but is disappointed the administration didn’t work to repair these flaws before enacting the requirement.
“I couldn’t believe that they sent an announcement of this magnitude in the middle of the night,” she said. “While reading the email for the first time, I was satisfied that they were accurately pointing out some of the problems of dorm life. But the decision to create a new requirement rather than working to fix the problems really surprised me.”
While O’Brien said he does not appreciate the fact that students will no longer be able to decide whether or not they stay on campus for six semesters, he can see the changes to residential life having some positive effects in the long run.
“I think the biggest drawback is that the element of choice has been removed,” he said. “I think a positive of this rule will be an increased focus on residential life, and I believe that this will lead to positive changes.”
The lack of student say in the matter, Zook said, remains a point of contention with many members of the student body.
“I think a big part of it is that we feel as though our opinions were not at all taken into consideration,” she said. “Conducting focus groups did not seem to reflect the views of the current student body in general. Also, simply put, as young adults we don’t [need] more restrictions. Since Notre Dame already has such a high rate of upperclassmen living on campus, imposing a new requirement just didn’t seem necessary to many including myself. … There can be benefits, but they are reliant on some big ‘ifs.’”