UNIVERSITY RANKINGS

IT’S ALMOST LIKE HOME

To attract students, schools are promising choice accomodation

MARTIN PATRIQUIN November 13 2006
UNIVERSITY RANKINGS

IT’S ALMOST LIKE HOME

To attract students, schools are promising choice accomodation

MARTIN PATRIQUIN November 13 2006

IT’S ALMOST LIKE HOME

UNIVERSITY RANKINGS

To attract students, schools are promising choice accomodation

MARTIN PATRIQUIN

The title character of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons is a country bumpkin genius, who at the novel’s beginning is utterly romantic about her impending first year at university. As in most literary endeavours describing university life, Charlotte encounters the usual gang of sexually charged boozies, rich kids, nerds and outcasts. They don’t just study on an idyllic, ivy-covered campus—they live there. The students of the archetypal Dupont University meet, mingle and sleep (apart, and not) in a university dormitory.

What’s true about Wolfe’s tale? Residence life can sometimes be a rowdy, booze-infused, unpredictable learning experience. What’s not true? In Canada at least, most university students don’t live on campus. There are roughly 102,000 residence spaces at Canadian universities—enough beds for barely one in 10 undergraduates.

On most Canadian campuses, there are far more commuters than residents: at the University of British Columbia, 79 per cent of students live off-campus, most with their parents, according to the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium. At the University of Alberta, 91 per cent of students live off-campus. Eight in 10 University of Toronto students are commuters. At York, 85 per cent commute: the school has 9,000 parking spots. For every Mount Allison, where almost all incoming students are in residence, there is a Concordia: 30,000 students, 147 residence spaces.

It’s a situation that Canadian universities

are trying to change. The availability of residence spaces is seen as a carrot that can lure the most desirable students. A growing number of universities now guarantee an on-campus bed for at least the first year of university. The list includes Acadia, Bishop’s, Brandon, Guelph, Fakehead, Mount Allison, Ottawa, Queen’s, St. Francis Xavier, Toronto, Trent, Victoria, Western, Wilfrid Faurier and Windsor. Others—such as York, UBC, Calgary, Faurentian and McMaster—offer first-year housing to scholarship students, or students with outstanding high school grades.

Why live in residence? To reassure jittery parents, officials are pushing safety, security and academically positive atmospheres. Res-

idences, parents and students are told, more or less guarantee “a safe and comfortable living environment” (Mount Allison) and a “good balance between academics and social activity” (UBC) that will “ensure the safety of all students” (Victoria).

“The transition to university is a big change,” said Susan Grindrod, who is in charge of housing at University of Western Ontario. “A first-year student has a lot on his mind. It looks after your basic needs, sleeping and eating. Through our research, we know that the more you are connected to the university, the better you will do.”

Western is a good example of the residence trend. Nearly 80 per cent of first-year students are in res, up from fewer than 70 per cent four years ago. Western guarantees a bed, a roof and a floor monitor to every firstyear student—meaning the university has some 3,300 first-year students under its wing. These residences, Western promises, promote an “atmosphere conducive to sleep and study,” where students “are encouraged to take advantage of the academic component” of university life.

Reality often trumps perception, though. Take Kristy Küpper, a first-year student at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Kupper’s a bit of an anti-Charlotte Simmons. Tike Wolfe’s protagonist, she is from a small town (Dryden, Ont.), and she is an English major. That is where the similarity ends. Küpper, 18, drinks, smokes, sometimes skips class, often ignores homework and has a boyfriend. Residence, she says, accommodates all her habits.

She lives in Prescott House, Carleton’s newest residence, along with 399 other students, most of whom are also first-years. The bottle blond shares her room with Faura Fefebvre, a less gregarious film studies major

from New York. The two of them, in turn, share a small common area and a bathroom with another pair of girls. If anything rings true about Carleton’s residence mantra “cooperation, consideration, compromise,” it is over the bathroom: these four young women have gone a full month of school without fighting over it. Küpper and Lefebvre, meanwhile, have themselves learned to compromise. Lefebvre studies, Küpper doesn’t, and Kupper’s boyfriend was driving Lefebvre nuts during the week.

“She had a problem with my boyfriend being in here, so we worked it out that he’d only stay over on weekends,”

Küpper said. Lefebvre, who reads up for tomorrow’s class in the common area while Küpper is puffing back a smoke outside, is seemingly still adjusting. “It can be distracting,” she sighs, before quickly adding,

“I like it, though.”

For Kupper’s first two weeks of school, there were frequent trips to Hull with her boyfriend, to places like Cosmo or Le Bop.

Ottawa bars were out, thanks to Ontario’s drinking age. “I’m not 19,” she says. Solution: booze in the residence.

“There aren’t supposed to be parties, but people do it anyway.” Indeed, on the wall outside her room is a university poster saying, “83 per cent of Carleton residents did not drink alcohol during orientation week 2005,” onto which someone has penned, “Who took the survey = losers.” Until 2003, McGill couldn’t guarantee first-year students a room, which administrators say hampered enrolment at a school where more than half the undergrads are from outside the province. The shortage of rooms also frustrated parents who weren’t keen on letting their kids loose in the land of laissez-faire. The school’s answer is New Res, a 12-storey building once occupied by a hotel, retrofitted with security cameras, a card entry system, security posts and 24hour guards who dutifully sign in every guest

coming through the door.

“The very central and public location of the building makes security an issue,” says Janice Johnson, McGill’s student housing manager. “New Res gets a lot of traffic, a lot of dropins, so a good level of security is necessary.” The rooms are what you’d expect from a former luxury hotel: double beds, stellar views, and carpeting as-yet unscathed by beer stains and cigarette burns. McGill is particularly fussy about upkeep, as the residence turns into a $100-a-night hotel during the summer. The cafeteria is more sushi and stir-fry, less chicken burgers and boiled peas.

CANADIAN UNIVERSITIES HAVE RESIDENCE SPACES FOR BARELY ONE IN 10 UNDERGRADS. IT’S A SITUATION THE SCHOOLS ARE TRYING TO ADDRESS.

“It’s basically a fourstar hotel,” said Dave Cohen, a fourth-year cultural studies major from West Hartford, Conn., who lived in New Res the year it opened. “They’ve tightened things up a lot since I was there, though. There were only two security guards then. For us, it was basically, ‘Do what you want. Here’s a bunch of 18-year-olds, go have some fun.’ ” But still, all the security in the world can’t stop fresh-faced first-years from experiencing Montreal’s non-academic splendours. St. Laurent Street, the city’s highest concentration of bars and nightclubs, is a five-minute walk away. “There’s a tunnel underneath the residence,” said Vanessa Rwetsiba, a first-year arts student from Washington. “You practically don’t even have to go outside.” Rwetsiba says residence living is about finding a balance between school and everything else—between the necessities of university life and the temptations that make it fun. Sitting in a puffy armchair in the New Res lobby, she seems blissfully unaware of the security detail behind her. And maybe that’s the point: as much as universities might like, they still cannot completely shelter students from the outside world, or from themselves. Real life, as Charlotte Simmons quickly finds out, still gets in the way. M