The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students and the residential colleges spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours of brainpower trying to promote the residential college system as an alternative to the dominance of Prospect Avenue. They hatch creative solutions — everything from study breaks, to college trips, to intramural sports. While all of these are perfectly valid approaches, far more powerful tools lie at their disposal: residential zoning and open-door policies. There are several fundamental issues with some zoning on campus, particularly in Whitman, Wilson and Rockefeller colleges. Addressing these issues could drastically improve residential college community.
First and foremost, zones which are divided and spaced-out are at highest risk for a disconnected ’zee group. When the residential college adviser and residential graduate student live too out-of-the-way of their advisees, it becomes increasingly difficult for an initial connection to be formed. If ODUS and the colleges wish to promote community in halls, all of the members of that hall must be housed in close proximity to one another. That means RCAs, freshmen, sophomores and RGSs must live in such a configuration that they can interact on a regular basis. Of course, this could turn into a logistical nightmare, given existing infrastructure, but I believe that the benefits would be worth it. In my own college and others, I’ve observed and heard of ’zee groups that are fragmented across entryways or even entire buildings.
For one reason or another, people are incredibly lazy when it comes to socializing. Whether we are aware of it or not, proximity and routine often play a huge role in determining who our closest friends and relationships are. The chances that one is on good terms with his or her adviser increases substantially if one lives within passing distance of him or her (assuming that the adviser isn’t exceedingly strange). Rather than trying to foster solidarity through often ineffective events like Orientation Week precepts and study breaks, ODUS and the colleges have the opportunity to promote the residential college system using a pleasant combination of psychology and geography. And because freshmen become sophomores become juniors, good relationships within residential halls will grow with the years. Making the changes to prevent fragmented zones from occurring is the most important change residential colleges could make.
In addition to sorting out nonsensical zoning schemes, residential colleges should also put more effort into offering a communal “hang-out” for each residential group. Butler has done an excellent job with this in its new dorms, providing residents with large, transparent common rooms. This makes it much easier for spontaneous student meetings, giving the feeling that there is an openness and community to the halls. Other colleges, especially in some of the older buildings, don’t prioritize common spaces. Even if it means converting unused space or being creative with what space we have, there needs to be some kind of common area available to each residential group. Opening up the “feel” of the dorms should be a vital part of the residential college mission.
Another related aspect of halls in the residential colleges is their locking policy. In many dorms on campus, especially in some of the newer buildings, students do not have the opportunity to leave their doors unlocked. While I understand the safety concerns posed by leaving doors unlocked and open, I feel that indirect consequences arise from locked doors which could be as bad, if not worse, than these concerns. One of the weirdest experiences I have had at Princeton is walking down a long hallway of doors in the evening with none of them open and no clue whatsoever as to who lives behind them. It can feel very lifeless and isolating. There is something about an open door which strengthens the communal spirit of a residence. The University should put more responsibility in the hands of the undergraduates and allow us to decide whether our doors are open or closed.
There are naturally exceptions to my suggestions in this column. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with finding community outside of the residential college. (I encourage it!). But there is an opportunity for an awesome support system of friends and advisors that is sometimes squandered due to bad logistics. Uniting the members of a residence hall is the number one way to transform the dorms at Princeton from a place where people sleep and throw their stuff into a home away from home, which is what college should be. We spend too much time on campus to not have it feel as warm and welcoming as a home. A few changes in the structure and zoning of the residential colleges could go a long way for Princeton undergraduates.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.