Residents of University Village join together to ‘Save the Village’
Courtney Becker | Monday, October 9, 2017
It wouldn’t be fair.
This mantra is the reasoning John Affleck-Graves, executive vice president of the University, gave to residents of The University Village for Notre Dame’s plans to shut the Village down in June of 2018.
The University Village is subsidized, on-campus housing provided for married graduate students and their families. The community has existed for more than 70 years, and for many of the residents, attending graduate school at Notre Dame with their families by their sides would not be possible without the Village.
In response to the University’s plans to shut down the Village, residents have started a Save the Village campaign, which has included the circulation of a petition to provide an alternative form of family housing, demonstrations to get word of their situation out to other members of the Notre Dame community and meetings with University administrators.
These residents believe the history, affordable cost, supportive community and diversity of the Village are vital benefits that would be lost if the University were to follow through with its current plan.
According to the Save the Notre Dame Village website, The University Village evolved out of Vetville, a place for veteran families to live after World War II. In the 1960s, University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh created the Village to replace Vetville and build Hesburgh Library in its original location.
Graduate student Tyler Gardner, a current Village resident, said Hesburgh made sure to provide replacement housing for the community that was being relocated before moving residents and knocking down the old buildings — something the University is not doing this time around.
“That’s the Hesburgh way,” Gardner said. “If you knock down the Village, kick people out of the Village and then try to restart it … you killed something. A 70-year tradition died.”
For some members of the Notre Dame community, a connection to the Village spans generations.
Brian Collier, a supervisor for the Alliance of Catholic Education (ACE), said he remembers visiting his grandmother while she was a resident of University Village in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite being a white woman, Collier’s grandmother identified as Korean after being born and raised in Korea. When her husband began his graduate program at the University, Collier said, his grandmother gravitated toward University Village because she felt more at home among its diverse population.
“She moved to South Bend and she immediately began looking for the Korean population, and that Korean population — at that time, there was a pretty decent-size Korean population living in the Village, the University Village,” Collier said. “It was super international.”
Collier said his grandmother helped to implement Village traditions that are still in place today.
“Those people babysit for each other while others are in class, they pass toys down from one group to the next — this is something my grandmother helped facilitate, too,” he said.
Graduate student Crystal Spring, who lives in the Village with her husband — also a graduate student — and baby and wrote a letter to the editor describing the Save the Village Movement, spent five years of her childhood living in the Village while her father completed his physics doctorate program at Notre Dame after immigrating to the United States from Korea.
“We didn’t know anything really about how to find housing or what resources were even available,” Spring said. “And so the University hooked us up with University Village, the graduate family housing, and we lived in the building D for five years — all five years of his PhD.”
When she and her husband were deciding where to live as graduate students with a child, Spring said, she remembered her family’s positive experience with the Village.
“I don’t think we would have survived without that community and without the resources and without the proximity that the University Village had to campus,” she said. “And coming full-circle for me, after doing the ACE program at Notre Dame I got married to my husband who also did ACE, and we are both grad students here. And when we found out that I was pregnant as grad students, we decided that we couldn’t live in the apartment that we were currently living in — one, because it was far from campus, and two, because it didn’t seem very safe.”
Experiencing the Village as both a child and a parent has made her appreciate the resources it has to offer even more, Spring said.
“As a kid I just thought that this was a normal community,” she said. “I thought everyone had access to this kind of support and be able to have a safe place to go trick-or-treating. After having lived in a lot different cities and as an adult, I know that that’s actually a very rare experience. And as a parent at the Village, I really appreciate everything that’s there specifically to support families.”
Rose Dougherty, the wife of an architecture graduate student who lives in the Village, said the history of the Village made a big impact in the Save the Village movement.
“We’ve had so much fun looking back at the history,” Dougherty said. “How Fr. Hesburgh started it, how much he clearly loved it and it’s been going for over 70 years and it has been so important to so many families. Just when you read back some of the quotes and the experiences over the years that these families have had, it’s such a great thing.”
With the University’s deadline for the relocation of Village residents looming, Notre Dame administrators announced Sept. 13 that undergraduates will be required to live on campus for six semesters in order to emphasize and build community.
Using this logic, Gardner said it does not make sense to disrupt a “thriving” community in the Village.
“What I’ve understood is the main reason for [the six-semester requirement] is not to gain the money that it would cost all of [the undergraduates] to live here, but the main reason for that is to increase campus community life,” Gardner said. “Not everybody’s excited about that. You have on the flip side a community that has been thriving since the 40s, yet you’re going to say ‘I’m sorry, there’s no longer space for you.’ So people that are getting kicked off of campus that are dying to stay.”
Spring, who lived on campus for all four years of her undergraduate experience at Notre Dame, said her time at the Village has been even more essential for her than her time in an undergraduate residence hall.
“The logic that they are giving to back up the decision about the Village is just completely antithetical to the undergrad situation,” she said. “And having experienced both of those communities — the dorm community and the Village community — I think the Village community has been a lot more essential to my thriving as a student at Notre Dame. Dorm culture is great, and the Village is great for a lot of the same reasons. … All the reasons why Notre Dame could fathom to have this be a mandate — the six-semester thing — are also reasons that people love the Village and need the Village.”
Village resident Sarah O’Brien, whose husband is a graduate student, said the Village community closely relates to that of a dorm community.
“It’s very similar to an undergrad dorm in how tight-knit it is,” she said. “Since my freshman dorm experience I have not experienced something like this where everyone’s in a similar life stage. All of a sudden you just instantly belong to a place like you do in an undergrad dorm, and the fact that they get that value because they’re trying to keep students on campus … doesn’t make sense at all.”
Naomi Burton, another Village resident whose husband is a graduate student, said she does not know how she would have made it through the transition to life at Notre Dame without the support of the Village community.
“The first year we were here was really hard,” Burton said. “I was pregnant, we had two kids, it was Rob’s first semester at school and the winter was long. And my friend was across the hall, and we would just spend time at each other’s houses every day, all the time. Or we’d send our kids over and I’d take a nap and it was like this life-saving friend that helped me get through that first year of being sick and everything else.”
The isolation parents feel as a result of their spouses constantly studying and working is offset by the support they find in the Village, Dougherty said.
“Being a stay-at-home mom can be very isolating,” she said. “And the fact that we have this communal green and playground in the back of all of our buildings — we can go out and all the other mothers come out there throughout the day and we’re just chatting — is just great. I loved it. So that’s probably been the biggest reason for our very positive experience here at Notre Dame. … I’m going to be really sad when we have to leave because I’ll have to start all over making friends, and that’s difficult.”
If Notre Dame is truly interested in prioritizing community, Burton said, administrators should work to save a community that has consistently been one of the University’s strongest.
“One of the former residents said routinely The University Village would come in as the highest-ranked residence hall as far as community and the sense of loving that and needing that for years,” Burton said. “ … The actual housing buildings have lot of issues, but the community — everybody’s always said we love this.”
Spring said she and her family wouldn’t be as dedicated to Notre Dame without their experience in the Village.
“I’m going for my third degree from this university, and I just know that if we just lived in some random apartment complex that was not a part of the University, that was not in a firm community, that we would not have retained those ties to the University,” Spring said. “That we wouldn’t have had a sense of loyalty to the University that they had given us a home. As a child, that community spirit was instilled in me mainly through University Village, not through my dad’s degree or department or anything like that.”
According to the movement’s website, the Village’s population is made up of over 60 percent international families. The Village’s affordable housing, proximity to campus and tight-knit community is essential for grad students who travel across the world to study at Notre Dame, O’Brien said.
“Because I knew moving in that it was going to be torn down I was just like, OK, yeah,” she said. “And it wasn’t until I heard the experience of international families that I was like wait a second — how is the University doing this? How are they just destroying this when it’s such a lifesaver for especially international families?”
Collier said this internationalization of the Village has been a staple of the community for as long as he can remember.
“They cooked meals together, they were like a little model U.N.,” he said. “And we lose something as a Notre Dame community when we lose this internationalization of the Village.”
This internationalization is a major benefit for families whose kids might not otherwise be exposed to different cultures in South Bend, O’Brien said.
“In our building there’s a family from Columbia across the hall, Saudi Arabia upstairs, Lebanon, Nepal,” she said. “So my kids are playing with kids from all around the world. We’re never going to get this experience again, this is amazing.”
Aside from the diverse cultures blending together, Spring said the Village community helps provide for needs that international families wouldn’t be able to meet without its support.
“Especially for international families who don’t have cars, the whole neighbor community thing is essential,” she said. “One of our downstairs neighbors right now, they came from Argentina just a couple of months ago, and within a few days of moving their son got croup … and our other neighbor was able to drive them [to the hospital]. Without that they probably would’ve had to call for an ambulance, which would’ve incurred a lot of medical fees that they just couldn’t afford.”
Even benefits such as residents who don’t speak English being able to learn the language at a more manageable pace would be lost without the Village community, Gardner said.
“A big part of this, too, is that while a graduate student might be versed in English, a lot of times their spouses aren’t,” he said. “But what they find in the Village is a community where a lot of spouses aren’t. And they have English classes … where they’re able to learn English. They also have Spanish classes where they’re able to come and teach Spanish to their other community [members].”
Without the Village, Burton said, some international families will even be separated for the remainder of a graduate student’s program.
“Since we started saying ‘save the Village,’ trying to move that direction, we’ve heard stories from international families that are just heart-wrenching,” she said. “One [student] said ‘I’ll have to go get a roommate and send my wife and child back to Uganda because we won’t be able to afford to live here.’”
One of the criticisms of the Save the Village movement is that the University announced it would close the Village in the summer of 2014, but the movement to save it did not start until this fall. Dougherty said the lack of action in the past few years was due to a lack of information and a belief that there would be a replacement ready for residents as there was when Vetville was transformed into the Village.
“It really was because they gave us very little information, but they led us to believe that they were going to offer us something else on campus … for affordable rates,” she said. “And as we were coming up on our last year and we still have not had any information given to us [since the 2014 announcement] then we went and started asking what’s the plan for us.”
A WNDU article announcing plans for an $82 million commercial investment further spurred action, O’Brien said.
“WDNU’s article came out about the plans, the $82 million retail plans for the Village,” she said. “So that kind of coincided and it was like, what? We need more information. So we gathered a group … and then from there, a few days later we got the petition started and going.”
O’Brien said publicity for the movement picked up after the petition gained 2,500 signatures in about three to five days.
“That led to a meeting with Heather Rakoczy Russell and Karen Kennedy,” she said. “And in that week where the petition had been circulating, we got WNDU to come and do a little piece on us and the South Bend Tribune wrote an article that was published that Friday. We met with Heather and Karen on Wednesday that week, and right after the WNDU came out John Affleck-Graves sent us an email saying [he’d] meet with [us].”
When the residents met with Affleck-Graves, Burton said, he told them there is land for a replacement Village and plans to build it, but the cost of construction is too high for the University to justify building it.
“When we talked to John Affleck-Graves about it, he didn’t say that a donor couldn’t be found, but they just haven’t tried that route,” she said. “So they have a place where it could be built, they have people who are willing to build it but it’s kind of this [question of] does the University have any duty to married families?”
Affleck-Graves did not immediately respond to a request for comments.
The argument that building housing specifically for families wouldn’t be fair to unmarried graduate students also doesn’t justify not building because of the different needs for students with families, O’Brien said.
“That argument just doesn’t hold up,” she said. “A married student can’t have a roommate. And if they have kids, they have dependents to support on whatever stipend they’re getting or no stipend. … If you think about it for more than like 10 seconds you’re like, wait, that’s just common sense that a family would need a lower rate to be able to afford to be a student here.”
Gardner pointed out that most resources the University offers do not apply to every member of the community.
“Any resource that the campus provides doesn’t meet everybody’s needs,” he said. “ … If you think about any resource, it doesn’t meet all of the demands of the University’s population, but it meets a substantial demand that it’s willing to offer that service.”
One example Burton offered is counseling specifically for married students.
“They offer marriage counseling,” she said. “So they understand that there’s certain things that are unique to married families. Counseling is very helpful, but not 100 percent of the married population uses that, only a small part. But it’s still very important to have that service available to those who need it.”
Burton said many residents believe the true reason for the University’s current plans is the revenue it would generate from a commercial endeavor — revenue the University does not gain from the Village.
“It really is just the profitability,” Burton said. “We just think that as a university they’re not just a business. They’re a university — and a Catholic university at that — and so sure, families aren’t profit-making, but they have a duty to families to have affordable housing.”
Spring said the University’s reluctance to provide for families shows “a very clear prioritization of commercial profits over its mission.”
“The rents that we pay cover the maintenance of the buildings — the buildings are all paid for,” she said. “So the University is not losing money by having the Village as it stands right now. The problem for them is that it’s not making them money … but the University just keeps seeking these revenue-building endeavors. So in addition to not investing in family housing, they’re seeking commercial profits.”
This is in conflict with the University’s mission, Spring said, because it goes against Catholic teachings.
“I think it’s absolutely a pro-life issue,” she said. “The Catholic Church emphasizes that the parents are the primary educators of the child, etc., and so the mission of supporting those parents and supporting those families should be central to the University. And it [is] in a lot of ways already … but having a pro-life stance on something like abortion and not having a pro-life stance in terms of providing affordable family housing, that’s just completely contradictory.”
Faculty members within the University are taking the Save the Village movement seriously, Gardner said.
“We have internal support,” he said. “It’s not something where it’s just like, ‘Oh, these graduate students are complaining.’ No, a lot of people that have been around the University for a lot of years recognize the great resource that the Village provides and the great community that’s there. And I think that it’s been a tool in getting great graduate students here, and I think it’s been a tool in campus life.”
Without this tool, O’Brien said, top potential graduate students with families might reject Notre Dame in favor of one of the many other universities that still offer graduate family housing — such as Stanford and Michigan.
“They would lose out on key-contributing top grad students who are looking at different places and need to bring their families,” she said. “If there’s no good option for them, they’re not going to choose Notre Dame. If they really want top research coming out they need to have great grad students and they need to put some money towards that.”
The main goal of the movement is to acquire an extension of the leases at the Village before relocating the community to a replacement location they are asking the University to invest in, Dougherty said.
“At this point, essentially, housing for married students is not in the 50- or 100-year plan that Notre Dame has,” she said. “And John Affleck-Graves said that, and he said basically if we don’t provide housing for all graduate students we can’t provide housing for just some. We just think — and there are enough people who agree — we need to convince them that it is something that ought to be in their 50- or 100-year plan.”
Ultimately, Gardner said, keeping the tradition of the Village’s strong community intact is the most important result that could come of this movement.
“The reason for the extension is to keep the community intact,” he said. “Because if you close graduate housing for families right now and you close the community, you lose something. … It’s really difficult to start a community from scratch, so as a result you need to keep this community and just relocate it.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of signatures the petition received. The Observer regrets this error.