Students fear social implications of downtown dorm

Amidst advancements on the downtown dorm and Waterville’s revitalization, students have increasingly been expressing concerns about the effects the dorm will have on Colby culture. Most notably, students have speculated that along with the dorm a ban on students being allowed to independently rent off-campus residences will be introduced as well.

In a recent interview with the Echo, Vice President of Planning Brian Clark confirmed that the ban is “an option that [the administration] is very much considering,” though no full decision has been made. Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94 confirmed in a comment to the Echo that there will be more information available on this issue in the coming months.

According to Associate Director of Campus Life Kim Kenniston, the current number of students living off campus is only 89, though the downtown dorm will hold 200 students. The capacity of the dorm, virtually double the amount of students currently living off campus, suggests that the Administration will need to find ways to encourage students to live downtown. One tactic could be the prevention of student-rented off-campus housing, paired with the assumption that the same students would prefer to live in Colby-owned off-campus properties, rather than Colby-owned on-campus dorms. According to Clark, the Administration may consider filling the downtown dorm before allowing other students to independently rent their own off-campus homes.

The discrepancy in the number of students who currently live off campus and the capacity of the downtown residence may have something to do with the College’s intended enrollment increase. In a Feb. 14 Official Notice email, President David A. Greene said, “An ad hoc committee on the size of the College continued its deliberations [at a Board of Trustees meeting] with an expectation of releasing its recommendations at the end of the academic year.” Thus, the downtown dorm could provide a way to simultaneously increase enrollment, better house students, and promote the College’s integration into the city.

With building uncertainty around the future of housing, students have begun speaking out in favor of independently-rented off campus housing and expressing concerns about the possible ban.

A benefit to living in student-rented off-campus houses is independence. Aliza Van Leesten ’17 recently told the Echo that living off campus has been a “really good experience navigating how to pay bills, do chores, and cook.” Justin DePre ’06, owner of the Carroll Street “Colby Castles,” a group of refurbished Waterville homes typically rented to Colby students, reiterated this sentiment. “Living off-campus provides a level of independence that is important to experience before graduating. Paying your own bills, cooking your own food, and having to handle real world situations are not often part of the curriculum at Colby,” DePre said.

DePre and his brother Tom have been renting homes to Colby students since 2008 after they realized that access to good off-campus housing was scarce. In an interview for the Echo, DePre further explained that the business began because he wanted to create “an off-campus community of high quality housing to enhance the Colby experience that [he] loved so much.” Beginning with just one house on Carroll Street, the DePre’s have since renovated four Carroll Street homes and have also bought two buildings on Main Street in anticipation of the downtown revitalization.

The planners of the downtown dorm are making positive advancements for the College’s housing offerings, but there are still deficiencies on the Hill that the new dorm will not ameliorate. Part of the draw of off campus housing is kitchen and living spaces. “If more on-campus rooms had living and kitchen spaces people would be excited about living on campus,” said Zoe Gibson ’17, a resident of the Alfond Senior Apartments.

Tommy Chandler ’18 said of his decision to live off campus, “I found that living in dorms for two years made it difficult for me to take the necessary space in times of high stress. This semester it has been great to have my own space­­­­—and quite a bit more of it.”

Part of the dorm plan, however,  aims to encourage students to become more engaged downtown, which is a positive reason that many students associate with their decision to live off-campus. “The culture is super relaxed, and it’s nice to be close to downtown,” Van Leesten said. “I feel way closer to the Waterville community than I ever had living on campus,” she explained. DePre affirmed these feelings by saying that “students are able to interact more with the town while still being part of a student community, which I think is a great balance.”

Surely, the community and civic engagement aspect of the downtown dorm will help students become more involved in Waterville. As evidenced by the renderings of the dorm and conversations with Clark, the first floor of the residence will house spaces for Colby students and members of the greater community to engage on important issues in Maine.

Despite the positive influence of a Center for Civic Engagement, in an interview for a prior Echo article, Helen Chavey ’19 expressed concern about this component.“I wonder if the civic engagement piece will work to attract a specific slice of the student body and separate social groups even more here on campus,” Chavey said. While many Colby students actively try to become  involved in the greater Waterville community, Chavey’s concern of the residence pulling a certain niche of students indicates an expected change in the culture on campus.

In support of the downtown dorm, DePre said, “it’s fantastic that the College has embraced the idea of creating a vibrant off-campus community, which has worked so well for students who have lived in the Colby Castles. I believe the dorm on Main Street will also serve to enhance the off-campus community, as well as the Waterville community in the way that I feel Colby Castles has done on a smaller scale.”

Another important implication at the forefront of many students’ concerns regarding the possible downtown housing ban is how social life will be impacted. While the College’s social life is mainly centered around events on the Hill, many students also enjoy venturing to students’ homes, whether for a party or to “cook dinner and hang out,” Gibson said.

In Colby’s recent history, there has been a noticeable pushback from the Administration on off-campus parties, likely as a result of citations for underage students incurred while off-campus. Students have said that the off-campus housing ban is a calculated move on the Administration’s part is to end off-campus parties.

“Getting rid of off-campus housing isn’t a good solution to what the Administration considers Colby’s problems,” said a student who would like to remain anonymous. “Students will probably end up renting houses without informing the school,” he said. If the ban on student-rented off-campus housing becomes definite and students begin to rent off-campus without Colby knowing, a deeper divide in the College’s typically open social life might occur.

The downtown Waterville community is unique and rapidly changing and with that so is the College. Though most students eagerly welcome the downtown dorm and seem excited by its prospects, it will inevitably shape a new dynamic at Colby. The Echo will continue to report on these developments in the coming months when the administration is available for substantive comment on the issue.