As locks snap and lights switch off in residence halls on March 22, some international NU students are caught in the horns of a dilemma: Destinations and housing options are not easy to find when home is half a world away. Should they wring out a bed from friends at their house? Dig out cheap hotels from the city guides?
“Breaks are not long enough to justify the money to go back home,” said Nicole White, a freshman who lives in the Netherlands. “And housing doesn’t give you much leeway.”
With more than 30 undergraduate residence halls, plus sororities and fraternities, the Evanston campus is home to about more than 5,000 students each academic year. Opening the residence halls for international students during breaks would require massive restructuring of the housing system that Northwestern cannot currently undertake, says Mark D’Arienzo, associate director of university housing and food service.
“The university has been wrestling with this issue for a few years now,” D’Arienzo said. “This really is a much larger issue than just the international students.”
A vicious cycle
Accommodating students during break would require extensive changes to the housing procedures. According to D’Arienzo, if the university were to let international students stay in its dorms during breaks, it would have to either leave all residence halls open, or assign all international students to one housing unit at the beginning of the housing process.
“The thing I don’t like is students being scattered in buildings without personnel,” said Mary Goldenberg, director of university residential life. “Having one building for international students is not to the students’ interest, either.”
As the “opportunity for mischief” would increase if students were to stay on campus during breaks, year-round staff, most likely CAs, would have to oversee the residence halls, D’Arienzo said.
“Then you are basically telling these students that they can’t go anywhere during their breaks,” he said.
Endorsing this scenario would also call for a review of how facilities operate throughout the academic year. If maintenance is not performed in summer months, residence halls host conference groups and students enrolled in summer classes.
“We would have to either examine the possibility of downsizing conference operations or build more buildings,” D’Arienzo added. “Building more buildings would then entail identifying a place to build a new building on campus. You won’t see a residence hall go up on the lake fill anywhere over the green space.”
The complexity of the solution is evident even to the students that it most closely applies to.
“All the answers bring about more problems. It’s a cycle,” White said. “Every time you think you have solved it, it brings to your attention more issues.”
Does the demand justify the cost?
“During breaks, when you ask somebody to stay in their house, you are imposing on their family,” said Yong Shu Ling, a transfer student from Singapore. “It’s a lot of stress and it’s going to happen every quarter.”
Yet it is not entirely clear whether restructuring the housing system is justified by demand.
“We don’t know what the demand is,” said Ravi Shankar, director of Northwestern’s International Office. “So one of our issues is that if we don’t hear it, there’s not much we can do about it because we don’t think that’s a priority.”
In the past, the Lake Shore Center, an aging building on Northwestern’s Chicago campus, offered temporary accommodation to mainly graduate and professional students. It closed in August 2005 due to dwindling occupancy.
“Even when that was available, it didn’t seem like we had a lot of students who went there,” said Elizabeth Kendall Matthews, associate director of the International Office. “I think that a bigger inquiry that we get by students is where to store their stuff over the summer.”
For the last seven years, Northwestern has received a steady influx of international students, admitting an average of 600-700 throughout the academic year. If this trend persists, the demand for housing should accordingly stay within current limits.
“But that’s not to say that if there is interim housing, nobody is going to take it,” Shankar said.
“It’s one of those questions – which comes first, the chicken or the egg,” Matthews said. “If you offer something and you advertise it, and it’s a good deal, it might be well utilized.”
For now, alternatives
Although it has been a subject of consideration, the opening of the residence halls during breaks is not likely to happen in the near future, according to D’Arienzo.
“Maybe the most feasible beginning option is for the university to work with an entity that would offer discounts to students,” Mary Goldenberg said.
While this is not on the university’s agenda, the International Office already recommends a youth hostel in downtown Chicago that offers discounts to Northwestern students, as do a number of other institutions.
“It’s very easy for us to bury our heads deep into immigration issues, but if we don’t know [an issue], there’s not much we can do about it,” Shankar said. “The more we know, the better we can respond and begin addressing those issues.”