Home on The Hilltop

By Jeff Walberg

On the surface, Cornell’s evolving campus life seems to reflect the age of the individual.

The new Clock Tower Residence Hall will feature airconditioned, private rooms and wireless-Internet service. In the Roe Howard Fitness Center, students exercise with headphones tuned to the TV channel of their choice. And dining hall meals are increasingly cooked to order.

But underlying this cultural shift one finds a complementary reality where relationships are key and community is the goal. The result is a campus in which the liberal arts extend beyond the classroom and into the home and neighborhood life of the residence halls, the “town square” of The Commons, and the acts of community service that bind the campus together.

Creating a home

“The days of the traditional dorm are practically over,” says John Harp, vice president for Student Affairs.

When Cornell built New Hall in 2005, Harp says it was simply a “no-brainer” that it would feature suite-style living built around shared common areas. Student input helped evolve the concept even further in the design of Clock Tower Hall where suites will have two single rooms and one double, compared to New Hall’s four doubles per suite.

Students may have once been satisfied with “cinder-block shelves” and other simple amenities, says Dean of Students Karla Carney. But today’s students come to campus with a carload of electronics and a preference for modern and attractive facilities.

With these two new residence halls, Cornell now offers an up-to-date, transitional-living experience to 143 upperclass students.

“Living in New Hall has been a great transitioning experience for me,” says Morgan Marthaler, a senior from Brooklyn Center, Minn. “I live with seven of my closest friends, and I feel comfortable saying that all of us have greatly improved our communication and problem-solving skills. We have to clean our own bathrooms and kitchen, and communicate with our RA and Residence Life when we have maintenance issues. Also, we have had to communicate from suite to suite about noise instead of having our RA do all of that.”

The two new residence halls build upon an ongoing strategy of upgrading the older residence halls with improvements ranging from new lighting and furnishings to redesigned stairwells and updated laundry facilities.

But perhaps the most striking changes to residence life have come not in physical improvements but in programming. These efforts have especially targeted first-year students in an effort to welcome and integrate them into campus life in more intentional ways.

Welcoming newcomers

Pauley and Rorem became first-year-only residence halls in 1998, and Cornell hired staff to deal specifically with the “needs, trials, and tribulations of typical first-year students,” says Harp. The immediate spike in retention rates for these two halls led the college to extend the efforts further.

Last fall Dows Hall went to first-year-only, and the same transition will occur for Tarr Hall this fall. Services dedicated to first-years have also expanded, beginning the moment they arrive on campus to find people ready to help carry their belongings.

Incoming students now participate together in facilitated service projects during orientation, then begin their academic careers with first-block, first-year-only courses geared to help them transition into the liberal arts, college level coursework, and the One-Course-At-A-Time format. They also have opportunities each block to attend First Year Success Series workshops, which address topics such as time management, test-taking strategies, leadership styles, ethics, and diversity.

In addition, new students can choose to live on Connect Floor. Building on the success of the Living and Learning Communities that upperclass students may form, Connect Floor offers first-year students an opportunity to live together in an intentional community dedicated to service and leadership.

And next year first-years can choose to bond by taking two common courses that explore science fiction through the lenses of both English and physics. These students will live in the same building and will receive support in extending their common interest beyond the classroom.

On average, Harp says, just over 70 percent of first-years returned as sophomores in the mid-1990s. Though specific reasons are difficult to pinpoint, the retention rate rose to 82 percent over the past four years, and to a record 85 percent last year. Connect Floor has fared even better, with about 97 percent retention in its first two years.

Building community

What all these physical and programmatic efforts add up to is a network of strong relationships and a laboratory for learning beyond the classroom, beginning at the neighborhood level of the residence hall floor. Here is where a liberal arts education begins to take root, says Carney.

“Students are using residence hall life as an opportunity for navigating community standards, whether it’s issues, conflicts, concerns, celebrations, or socializing,” she says.“They’re exploring what it means to be a citizen in this little microcosm of society.”

Director of Residence Life Chris Wiltgen says he relies on well-trained residence hall assistants (RAs) to act as facilitators in helping students address everything from noise on their floors to vandalism on campus. He has even empowered students to advise three of the nine house councils, freeing staff time for other areas.

But in many cases, he and Carney say, it’s the floor residents themselves who organize to address issues that affect their immediate communities. They have seen students respond collectively to support floormates affected by 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, deaths in the family, and many other incidents.

Wiltgen says residence halls are also a place where mock debates, electoral polls, and academic discussions arise spontaneously. And he’s pleased when faculty members bring learning opportunities to the residence halls through fun, informal workshops.

The liberal arts come full circle, says Carney, when students begin to integrate their classroom interests, their extracurricular activities, and their social networks in ways that enrich their neighborhoods, the larger campus community, and the wider world.

“Part of who a Cornellian is,” says Carney, “is someone who is involved both in terms of breadth and depth. We want these multifaceted, Renaissance men and women who are really maximizing their interests and experiences and going deeper with them.”

In an age where dorm rooms generally contain cable TV, access to online communities, video games, iPods, stereos, and more, Harp says the role of his department is to continually encourage students to interact and assume responsibility. But he’s also pleased by the many students who come to campus eager for these challenges and opportunities.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation,” he says. “I’m not sure whether it’s Cornell influencing new students to be a certain way or more that the students we attract have influenced the college. I think the most likely answer is that both are shaped by each other.”