What is college really like? Well, there's the whole learning part, but you knew that was coming. Being a college student also means getting to know life as an individual, independent of your family and hometown for the first time. Students get a nice, drawn-out introduction to the "real world" through classes and internships, and they have few responsibilities and lots of fun along the way.
In many cases, students live on campuses that function like complete, insular worlds, even if they’re located in or near a big city. There is never a shortage of things to do on campus, so you don’t have to spend hours hiding in your room trolling Facebook (even though you will at some point, no doubt about it). You won’t be forced to participate in dorm activities, but do yourself a favor and try one or two and join in on the campus fun!
Colleges and universities want their students to feel welcome and connected, both to the campus and each other. This is particularly clear during freshman orientation. Schools often assemble large groups of current students to lead activities and introduce the newbies to campus. When freshmen at Emerson College arrive on the school’s urban Boston campus, they are greeted by singing, dancing, shouting orientation leaders, who help them unpack their luggage and show them to their dorms. Students then participate in several days of presentations and activities to ease into campus life.
To help freshmen get settled into residence halls at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, the Office of Residential Life (res life) schedules several faith-based activities, including a prayer breakfast on move-in day and a large commemorative Mass, says Paul Lynch, Director of Campus and Residential Services. The University also organizes mandatory floor meetings to introduce the res life staff, and they become an important fixture in the dorms, using the students’ input to plan their programming. “We do everything from movie nights and TV nights to events,” Lynch says.
Activities around Marymount include the annual Springfest at the end of the academic year, Midnight Madness nights to celebrate athletic events, and ongoing community service projects. The school also hosts a big Halloween Fest that overtakes entire dormitories, with themed floors and a haunted house. They invite children from the D.C. area, so they can go trick-or-treating in a safe environment.
But not all campus events are big festivals and celebrations. Small-scale activities include craft nights, study groups, speakers giving career advice, and perhaps local musical and comedy acts. You’ll be hard-pressed not to find something to do on any college campus practically every night of the week. Plus, getting involved with lots of activities, clubs, and organizations could inspire your major or career choice, Lynch says. You gain plenty of skills and experience, and you may discover interests and strengths you never knew you had. Best of all, these activities are usually free!
Be my friend?
“The advantages of living on campus are definitely the connection students make with their peers,” says Jan Schumacher, Director of Residential Services at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “This is their home away from home.” Participating in campus activities keeps you connected to your classmates and makes the transition to college life easier—and the feeling of community is hard to beat.
Schumacher says students are fond of the basic activities res life plans, like turning on popular TV shows and bringing out some snacks. She finds that girls are drawn to the arts-and-crafts nights more so than boys, who gravitate toward videogames and movies. The point of these activities—the point of everything, she says—is getting to know people. You’ll be with your dormmates morning, noon, and night. “There’s a lot of personal growth that happens in the unplanned stuff,” Schumacher says. And the best conversations always happen at 2:00 a.m.
All these getting-to-know-you activities are especially important during freshman year, but that doesn’t mean sophomores aren’t still trying to find their place on campus, Schumacher says. Muhlenberg even delays the Greek rush until fall of sophomore year to give students time to settle in. “Know that everyone is in the same boat,” she says. Everyone wants to make friends and feel like they belong.
“Get out and get to know your roommate,” Lynch says. Take a walk through the town or city that will be your home with your roommates, dormmates, or floormates. Explore the area and get to know each other. Of course, no one expects you to be best buddies with everyone, but you do need to respect your roomies, their space, and their belongings. It’s perfectly okay for your relationship to be nothing but polite small talk, and you never know what kind of friendship might develop over time.
Another connection worth making? Spend time with your professors if you can, Lynch says. They’re not just there to teach. Students often wait until junior or senior year to ask for guidance and advice, but if you get to know your professors early on, they can start helping you early on. And when you need recommendations for grad school or advisors for your senior thesis, those professors will know you, not just your test scores and attendance record.
Dorms with personality
Muhlenberg residence coordinator Katy Mangold has lived on the campus for 10 years and now monitors 1,200 upperclassmen. The students she works with live predominately in houses, suites, and apartments off campus.
“Our staff creates kind of a safety net for them,” she says, and resident advisors are typically available for students 24/7. They try to deliver a sense of community, Mangold says. Sometimes, that’s as simple as delivering freshly baked brownies to students’ doors. “We try to make it an extended home.”
Mangold and her staff talk to students, asking them what residence life programs they want. “Usually that revolves around food in some way,” she says. A recent campus barbeque block party was a hit among students. Res life staff petitioned the city to block off some streets, with permission from the locals, and threw a huge party complete with live music, inflatable toys bouncing around, crafts and activities, and plenty of food. They invited other Muhlenberg students and even neighborhood families too. Events like the block party support another res life goal: encouraging students to explore their surroundings. “Try anything that interests you,” Mangold suggests. “Immerse yourself in the culture on campus as much as possible and see where it takes you.”
Look for themed dorms or floors too, such as the outdoors dorm at the University of Puget Sound; the sports dorm at the University of California, Davis; and the romance language floors at Boston College. Substance-free, GLBT, international, and multicultural residence halls are also very common.
Antonia Heffelfinger, a sophomore studying history and literature at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, was randomly placed in a substance-free dorm her freshman year. The experience went so well that she plans to live there next year and work as a housing advisor. (Students who had great res life experiences often go on to become RAs themselves.) “I was excited to live in a dorm community,” she says. “Living on campus was an easy transition for me.” At many schools, including Reed, freshmen are required to live on campus. “Students have a community support system available to them as they learn to adapt to college life,” Heffelfinger says.
Traditions are a big part of the campus experience too. You find the expected rituals, like a school-sponsored Thanksgiving dinner for students who stay on campus. But there are weirder traditions, like Stanford University’s Full Moon on the Quad, where senior men and freshman women line up and exchange a kiss with the person opposite them, then the boys give the girls a rose. (Since its beginnings in the 1950s, it has become a big event at Stanford, with live music and volunteers distributing mouthwash and water!) In a very Harry Potter/Hogwarts fashion, many resident halls have their own unique personalities and traditions as well, and schools often promote friendly rivalry between dorms.
Heffelfinger’s substance-free dorm had its own traditions. “One is Fancy Dessert Night, where we all dress up and go out for dessert in a restaurant in downtown Portland or the surrounding area,” she says. “In the spring, we are responsible for putting on the Blue Lounge, a sub-free space for students to hang out in during the weekend.” She says incoming freshmen should take part in res hall activities and get to know people. “But also go out and experience more communities than your own—getting caught up in one group of people can be limiting.”
You might also encounter a living-learning community, where course work and academics are tied into residence life. If you’re passionate about a subject, why not consider living with people who share your interests? At the University of Maryland in College Park, students can live in one of 13 living-learning communities, where they participate in unique programs and research, work closely with faculty, and receive specialized career and academic guidance. One of these communities is the two-year CIVICUS Living and Learning Program, for students in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. Members (freshmen and sophomores) focus on citizenship and leadership, among other things, and work with nonprofits and community service organizations in the D.C. metropolitan area.
Off campus and into the world
“My favorite part about living on campus is the fact that I’m actually close to and part of a community of people at Reed,” Hefflefinger says. “I feel that if I were living off campus, I wouldn’t have the same number of friends or access to on-campus events and happenings.”
The campus experience is actually rather unique to the United States. In much of the world, going to university is just about attending classes and studying. Most students live at home or in apartments off campus. (That being said, the learning system is pretty different too, but that’s a whole other article!) You may be dreading living with a bunch of strangers, but a lot of students don’t get the chance! Keep an open mind, and be honest with yourself about what you want out of the campus experience. Even if you are sleeping in a twin-sized bed and using a communal bathroom, you may find that it’s most fun you’ve ever had.
What was your favorite part of living on campus?
Kelly Bowes, Emerson College '08
“The community. The fact that you could walk out of your room 24 hours a day, and there would be someone to hang out with and something to do. The convenience. The fact that I could roll out of bed 15 minutes before my class and make it with time to spare.”
Michelle Sutherland, Dalhousie University '08, Georgetown University '12
“I was in an all-girls dorm, and every Sunday night a group of 10 or so of us would put our books aside, steal cookies for the cafeteria, and watch three hours of Sex and the City. The other great part was that you could live in the same building as all your friends, eat all your meals together, study, hang out, or party together, but none of us shared rooms and we never had to coordinate chores. That’s the way to live with people peacefully!”
Farah Fard, Emerson College '09
“My roommates! Close proximity to stuff. Having a gym to go to for free!”
Jennifer Edmonds, Boston University '08
“Living with so many people your age. Making lots of new friends.”
Marisa Levine, Northeastern University '09
“Not having to pay so many separate bills! Having campus as your landlord. Easy access to campus life. Never being (as) late for class. Knowing the apartment won’t be a total dump from previous inhabitants. Having people nearby all the time. Facilities like laundry and study rooms.”
Thomas Garlick, Muhlenberg College '11
“I have learned to live on my own, make friends with both members of my hall and the rest of the student body, and have stayed in touch with college activities. The College has definitely become a second home for me, where I feel comfortable as myself, and I have gained a sense of independence.”