New off campus housing policy

In an email sent to students and faculty on Sunday, the College announced that all student housing, beginning in the 2018-19 academic year all student housing, , would be owned and controlled by the College.

The notice, sent by Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94, the Dean of the College, said that students “shared the need to strengthen the residential experience of students to provide a richer diversity of high quality housing options, especially apartments that allow for more independent living.”

“It isn’t a change… having all students live in [college] residence has always been the aspiration and the goal, and it has always been part of the policy,” Burrell-McRae said in an interview with the Echo.

That may be the case, but for many years, students have routinely lived off campus in privately owned housing. Often, students on the same team have lived together – there have historically been hockey houses, lacrosse houses, etc., in Waterville – as have groups of friends. The Student Handbook acknowledges that some students “will be given permission to reside off campus” when the College’s enrollment exceeds its capacity to house all its students. But, in fact, off-campus student housing has existed regardless of the size of the student body. Students have been able to simply not apply for on campus housing, sign a lease, and receive approval from Campus Life. Although the College got rid of fraternities and sororities in 1984, some underground fraternities moved off campus and have continued to hold social gatherings. A growing number of students feel as though some of these off campus houses have functioned similar to fraternity houses: throwing parties with a large number of students invited. When asked if there is any issue with off campus housing that the change in policy is trying to address, Burrell-McRae stated that “I don’t think you build a residence hall for 200 students motivated by what students may or may not do in off-campus housing, that’s not what informs a decision like this when you’re thinking of a structure that you hope will be there in perpetuity, or at least for the next 100 years.”

Some students were unhappy about the decision, but skeptical as to what the end goal of the policy change was. Nellie LaValle ’18 told the Echo that she thought “the policy change is pretty misguided, I have loved living off campus.” She went on to say that living off campus is “much cheaper and so much more relaxing. I have loved not having to deal with super loud neighbors and really thin walls, plus just not living in the institutional setting of a dormitory. I also think it is beneficial to students to live in a place where they do have to take some responsibility, doing day to day stuff like paying bills, taking out the trash, cooking for yourself, etc. Having a dorm downtown is a great idea but it still really does not immerse students in Waterville.” However, she closed by saying that the only positive thing she saw about the policy change is the potential to reduce the role that off campus houses may play in the Colby social scene.

Other students are excited about the chance to live in the state of the art dorm, and get a chance to live in on campus housing in a new environment. Kailey Kirkwood ’20, told the Echo “My room acts as my sanctuary on campus and having a room in the downtown dorm would make it even easier for me to keep my home and work life as separate as possible, while simultaneously letting me further explore and engage with the Waterville community.” Underclassmen are particularly excited; they have the opportunity to live in apartment style housing before senior year, which was previously not possible. 

The timing of the announcement also closely coincides with the topping-off ceremony for the Colby dormitory under construction on Main Street in downtown Waterville. The dorm is scheduled to house students beginning in the fall of 2018.

Carroll Street, or the “Colby Castles”, are owned by a Colby alum and are among some of the most in demand off campus housing for older students.

There has been considerable speculation on campus that the school would have trouble filling the 200 student beds in the downtown dorm – why would anyone want to live in the stark downtown of a failed former mill town when they could live on the beautiful Colby campus? – and that eliminating the option of living in private housing off campus could help the school fill the downtown dorm. Not the case, said Burrell-McRae.

“I’m pretty confident that we actually are going to fill it because there are enough students that have reached out with an interest to live there so I’m not concerned about that,” Burrell-McRae told the Echo.

The dorm, an expense to the College of $25.5 million dollars, is expected to be 100,000 sq ft. and house not only 200 students, but also eight faculty and staff members. According to Vice President of Planning Brian Clark, the rooms will feature four or six single bedrooms with full sized beds, a full kitchen with a dishwasher, refrigerator, stove, as well as granite countertops. The rooms will also be air conditioned, a Colby first. The building itself will also house two quiet study areas, a reading room, two social lounges, as well as a fitness space on the ground floor that will be broken up into two ways: cardio and light weight space, and a fitness studio that will have a wood floor for yoga or dance.

Although the dorm will have a number of state-of-the-art amenities, there are still technical aspects of the dorm that the administration is trying to work out, such as how transportation will work. Burrell-McRae commented that the administration “needed to be able to make sure we can have students, faculty, and staff be able to come and go with minimal interruption to their lives.” However, the details were not fully sorted out and they needed to be “worked out” this year. In a poll conducted by the Echo in April of last year, 43 percent of students surveyed stated that their main concern with living downtown would be the reliability of transportation.

Additionally, one of the main incentives for students to live downtown was the promised influx of retail stores and the revitalization of some of the original brick buildings on Main Street. However, the College has yet to make significant progress on the promised boutique hotel, and there have been no formal announcements about potential retailers in the spaces downtown — something that was speculated to happen over the summer.

“Part of the challenge of attracting business and getting business to grow is that you need an economic base to support them, and that’s a little bit what we’re trying to do in making the dorm and have student presence on Main Street,” said Clark. As of now, with no current commitments of retailers or businesses opening on Main Street, the first year of students may not have any new food or shopping options downtown.

However, to create a $25.5 million dorm, the College must have interest from the student body to live there. The College contends that over the course of last spring, they polled over 500 students, approximately 25 percent of the student body, about their interest in the dorm and what amenities they would like to see in the proposed building.

In a poll conducted by the Echo in April of last year, a little over 27 percent of respondents affirmed that they would consider living in the downtown dorm, whereas over 43 percent of respondents stated they are undecided and 30 percent showed absolutely no interest in living there.

Since the policy change came in early October, some students have already signed leases for coveted off campus houses for the next two years. One of the most well known rental options, “The Colby Castles,” are owned by the DePre family, including a Class of 2006 graduate, Justin DePre ’06. The four houses are all recently renovated and located on Carroll and West Street in Waterville, and hold between five to seven students. All four leases have been signed for the the 2018-2019 year, and three of those homes have been leased for 2019-2020. Justin DePre is a member of Colby’s Alumni Council, which has worked closely with the administration on planning the new downtown dorm. When the Echo asked whether landlords of Colby students were considered during this decision, Clark said “this has been a conversation that they’ve been a part of for the past three years as well, so I think it’s not fully a surprise.”

However, in February of last year, DePre told the Echo that “Carroll Street, campus, and now Main Street is a great way to bring students together all around Waterville.” When the Echo contacted him about the change in policy he declined to comment.

Although living on campus has its benefits, such as fostering a more inclusive community, ultimately the dorms currently on campus have many issues that have not been addressed.

In an email sent to the student body on Tuesday, Provost and Dean of Faculty Margaret T. McFadden outlined the report of the NESCAC Accreditation Visiting Committee. The committee noted a few areas they thought required attention, including “concerns about the maintenance and comfort of the residence halls,” and they noted that some students were concerned about “future social life in the downtown mixed-use residence hall.”

Students have also voiced concerns to the Echo about the quality of dorms on campus, in particularly The Heights dorm and the Harold and Billy Alfond Residence Complex.

The Heights dorm, built in 1981, houses 100+ students of all grades. However, a significant number of students have voiced issues with the dorm. Tomotaka Cho ’18 told the Echo that the facilities are “not up to par.” He went on to say that the “bathrooms and laundry services are atrocious.” Cho closed by saying that “water is getting under the floor, there is only one washer and dryer for an entire floor, which is roughly 35 people, and the conditions of the facilities could definitely be improved upon if the administration deals with these issues. Students should not have to live under such conditions.”

Similar to the Heights, students have voiced concerns about the Harold and Billy Alfond Residence Complex. The “Senior Apartments” are touted on the college website as “an on-campus choice for seniors who desire greater autonomy and independence, which is attractive to many returning from study abroad.” However, historically the Senior Apartments have also been a place where the on-campus student body chooses to congregate on the weekends, which can sometimes cause a plethora of dorm damage and create an environment undesirable to live in. Stefan Kohli ’18, a resident of the Senior Apartments, told the Echo that “it definitely becomes frustrating to see vomit, broken exit signs, and lights hanging from the ceiling week after week.”

The future grades which will be most impacted are the Juniors and Seniors returning from spending a semester abroad.

Due to the fact that the senior class historically represents a large majority of the student body who chooses to live off campus, several seniors were vocal to the Echo about the negative impact the policy change could have following the announcement.

“Living off campus has given me so much freedom that I couldn’t find on campus. As an athlete, I often struggled with food choices as well as dining hall hours, which is no longer a struggle. I have full control over my diet, my space, the noise level when I sleep, and the type of environment I want to be a part of. I also feel as though living off campus has created a very healthy divide between my academic and personal life. Being at home feels like an escape from the stresses at school which some people can continually feel trapped in when on campus,” Julia Saul ’18 said.

Dan Spellman ’18 also contacted the Echo over the issue, saying, “Living off-campus has been an important part of the later half of my time at Colby. It has allowed me to better separate the work and home components of my life which will be beneficial after graduation. I’ve gained many life skills in the process without losing sight of my academic endeavors at school.”

Although only a small percentage of juniors choose to live off campus, some of the juniors currently living off campus also spoke to the Echo following the announcement. James K. O’Brien ’17 told the Echo that “living off campus gave me an opportunity to handle more responsibility seen in life outside of a dorm. It taught me how to balance living on my own and also working a very hectic schedule. It provides a really good transition from college to adult life. Additionally, living on campus was a struggle. I found myself getting constantly sick being in such close proximity with other people, and I found that other dorm members would constantly come in my room without permission. I really do not want to move back on campus next year.”

Ultimately, however, Burrell-McRae also stated in her email that some students with “unique circumstances” may be allowed to live off campus in the coming years. When pressed on the issue, she stated that “it will be interesting to hear from students what they think those should be, so that is part of it. At the end of the day, this is a residential campus so most of the students should be living in college housing. It is about the kind of community building, intellectual engagement, and it becomes more intentional.”