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Alumni News

Spring 2003

The Way They Live Now

In September 1962, in the line outside the old housing office in Page House, one of my friends from my first year said that he was sleeping in the sand traps at Farmington while hunting for a room for the year. The following year, two of my friends, sharing a basement on Valley Road, joked about not having wall-to-wall floors. Their landlord had cured his basement flooding by raising the floor but leaving narrow ditches or troughs all the way around. When it rained, they stood on their island and watched the torrent flow around the room, then out through a Rube Goldberg arrangement of pipes and grates and tunnels.

Tales of students' living in odd places--nooks in old houses, barn lofts, spaces behind and above stores and garages, lost corners of the Alderman stacks or Memorial Gymnasium—are local legend. When new dormitories were not quite ready, students have sometimes slept in bunks in Memorial Gym. Visiting teams and some of our own players slept there. More recently, someone supposedly lived secretly in a student organization's office on the old fifth floor of Newcomb Hall.

Each tale probably includes a kernel of truth. The wilder stories (the one about the student trapped in a rooming house off JPA by a family determined to find a spouse for an eligible child said to be unattractive, for example, and a recent one about an alleged residence in a steam pipe that turned out to have been filled and closed years ago) are likely examples of University folklore—or of wishful thinking.

In 1961-62, a hundred fifty or so others and I lived in LeFevre House, right next to the cemetery. Although not posh, the McCormick Road houses were relatively new then. An outsider might have described us as exuberant. I doubted the tales about the Metcalf resident who decided he was a rooster and found a perch on a barn in Crozet only to be removed by a fire truck with a ladder, and about another who decided he was a messiah and offered to forgive Mr. Runk, who declined and sent the messiah home. Life there was loud, rich, and in the end, comforting. We formed friendships. We learned to govern ourselves. We played touch football and soft ball. We made some noise, and we sorted ourselves out.

Beginning in the early 1970s, women influenced student housing. They occupied spaces designed for men, but they brought a new sense of style. In liberated restrooms, women turned urinals into relics of a lost past by filling them with flowers or fronting them with potted ficus trees. These new residents did more. They took self-governance seriously enough to create the house committees that preceded the current First Year Council, and other groups that now seem essential. They brought culture into the dormitories by way of singing and performing groups, of which the First Year Players are the best current example.

Students nowadays have options. They can live as their parents did--in residence halls, fraternity and sorority houses, and apartments on Grounds and in town. They can choose a language house with theme food and programs, or a residential college. La Maison Française has existed in the former Barringer home on Jefferson Park Avenue sine 1985. The fifth language house opened this fall. Today's students can live, study, and eat where French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu and Persian are spoken.

Mr. Jefferson envisioned students and faculty living side-by-side with learning always in the air. Our three residential colleges resemble this vision. Faculty families live and work alongside students. Brown College on Monroe Hill, Hereford College south of Observatory Hill, and the yet-to-be-named International Residential College (IRC) offer extra-curricular learning in environmental sustainability, technology and the arts, and a variety of international topics. Each special area derives from the work of faculty members attached to the college. And the resident staff plan discussions, outings, and service projects. They are part of a program, which evolves constantly to meet student needs, adding value to students' lives in the dorms.

Students influence what is taught, and also bring their own knowledge into the colleges, and in the end help bridge the distance between science and the arts. The IRC, too, enrolls students with many interests, and offers programs in technology and the arts. One evening last spring, IRC residents told me about their seminars and informal programs. In the next room, a group of musicians played the didgeridoo. I don't remember hearing didgeridoos back in LeFevre House.

Off-Grounds housing remains important. Problems remain in the housing market, including many landlords' lawful but predatory practice of pushing first-year students to make unjustifiably early commitments in the form of second-year housing leases that must be signed within days or weeks after first-year first arrive—a practice that survives because landlords still succeed in creating panic among students who have never before shopped apartments or signed leases. The Parents' Committee supports a program for students seeking an apartment and signing a lease. The Student Council offers peer-to-peer informational sessions. For now, the message on early leases is that if enough students refuse the marketplace will adjust. But students need help from lawmakers and local officials.

T.S. Eliot wrote, "Home is where one starts from." Students know this. Until Thanksgiving, new students see that their parents' residence as home. Then they begin referring to the University as home, and they define themselves by where and how they live here. LeFevre House and buildings like it gave shape to my own student existence. These new-style University homes do much the same thing: They move today's students toward maturity. They teach practical lessons in being responsible for oneself and conducting business in the real world. They foster enduring friendships and attachments. And they teach students how to make a home in the world—no matter where in it they find themselves.