NU's residential college system: isolating, not unifying

    There are two kinds of people that live in the Public Affairs Residential College: the few who genuinely wanted to live here to discuss public affairs and everybody else.

    As the name states, the Public Affairs Residential College, or PARC to those few who have heard of it, is a residential college. About 113 people live there each year, and I say about 113 because in my time living in PARC, I’ve seen empty rooms, people moving out and many more expressing the fervent desire to move out.

    So why do so few people want to live here? Apart from the small rooms and even smaller bathrooms, PARC is an okay place to live; PARC has a prime location right by downtown Evanston (for those who have never heard of PARC, it’s across from the arch and next to Shepard and Allison), has a huge flat-screen TV with TiVo, and offers suite-style living, which is definitely a plus. Sure, no one really seems to know what exactly the ‘Public Affairs’ part of our name has to do with, well, anything, but people seem to enjoy it here.

    How relevant are international studies at ISRC anymore? Photo by Julie Beck / North by Northwestern

    Yet PARC fails, not as a dorm, but as a residential college. With a theme as unfocused as Public Affairs (I still haven’t found someone in my dorm who defines that less broadly than current events) but not so broad as Willard and Shepard (the multi-thematic dorms), PARC is left even further behind in a system that is losing its relevance to the Northwestern student. Instead of a system serving students and providing them with a forum to express their interests, residential colleges have turned into plain dorms that happen to be held back by a theme. So instead of randomly assigning themes, every dorm on campus should have the benefits of a residential college (an RC), without the label or a theme.

    The advantages of the residential college system have slowly been diminished over the years. According to the housing Web site, “Northwestern’s residential college system was developed in the early 1970s in response to a report by a faculty committee that urged the formation of smaller intellectual communities within the larger University community.” In response, five RCs were created, of which only two have remained the same. My own RC, PARC, is the youngest by a long shot, created in 1991, and housed in what used to be the Ayers College of Commerce and Industry.

    The RC system was created decades ago, at a time when social networking sites like Facebook were nonexistent and there were fewer ways on campus to meet people (Norris was built in 1972, so it was new when the first RCs opened) and they have since become unnecessary.

    On a campus where almost everyone seems to have at least six different areas of interest, it seems silly to pigeonhole students into just one area. Themed residential colleges were originally meant, not just for people majoring in those areas, but for anyone with extracurricular interest in them. Yet for most, the theme either gets lost in the dorm or the same kids end up there each year, which earns a dorm a bad or antisocial reputation. And with the plethora of clubs that Northwestern offers — anywhere from the Triathlon Club to the Outing Club — students can now join as many groups as they like, eliminating the need to live in a dorm geared towards one theme.

    In addition to fencing people in with themes, the RC system also fails in another extremely important aspect: A significant number of people who were placed in residential colleges generally don’t want to live there in the first place. Neither my roommate nor I placed PARC in our top five; but the way the numbers were crunched this year, it seemed as though only a lucky few got their first housing choice, and everyone else was left to the mercy of Undergraduate Housing. A snafu like this hardly raises morale in a dorm where few are even enthusiastic in the first place.

    On a campus where almost everyone seems to have at least six different areas of interest, it seems silly to pigeonhole students into just one area.

    Weinberg junior Thomas Rousse, the president of Chapin, the Humanities Residential College, said that tutorials at his RC, which is humanities-themed, have been declining. “Residential colleges were more successful in the ‘90s in general,” he says. “There’s a general trend of students moving off-campus.” This quarter PARC is offering two tutorials in conjunction with CRC – though none were planned here in the fall, nor are any planned for the spring. And while other residential colleges might hold events more often, without a standardized system of how many events each RC has, the system fails to provide each student currently living in a residential college the same experience.

    Communication sophomore Mike Medford, the president of Shepard Residential College, explained that the benefits of the RC system are numerous in a multi-thematic RC. “The purpose of the residential college is for people who didn’t want to be grouped in a specific area of study … to be part of two communities,” he says, referencing the larger Northwestern community and the smaller RC community. This is the aspect of PARC that appeals most to me: the community of friends that naturally arises.

    Of course, residential colleges offer things to students that a regular dorm, even a small dorm, cannot. In a residential college, Rousse said, “Everyone knows everyone else in a 70-person residence,” and that creates a community identity. And residential colleges pass on traditions; Willard and Shepard have a rivalry that’s been going on for decades. And an RC can help connect a student with more faculty, especially the master of that RC, and have faculty be a part of their day-to-day life. So why can’t all dorms offer these benefits of an RC, without isolating themselves into one theme?

    Yale University’s Residential College system is campus-wide; each and every freshman is assigned to live in one of twelve of them. Normally, students remain a member of the same residential college throughout their time on-campus. The RCs don’t have a particular theme; they are just another community for support for students within a large campus. Let’s make Northwestern’s RC system the same way. Residential colleges can be a community within a larger community, offer extra faculty support and host events in Chicago: These all sound like benefits that every student should have. If Northwestern restructured its entire housing system to resemble Yale’s, all students would end up with the benefits of a residential college without the restrictions that a theme places on them — the best of both worlds.

    Ultimately, I’m glad I was placed in a residential college. Living in PARC gave me great friendships – within the first few weeks of school, we all bonded over how much we didn’t want to live in PARC – and the irony of it is, most of my friends here plan on living here again next year. Let’s take that strength of the residential college system and apply it everywhere – a community that can thrive without a forced theme.

    Full disclosure: Thomas Rousse has contributed to North by Northwestern.


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