Sometimes students ask: why do I have to live on campus? Why am I required to be in the dorms or the Student Apartments until I am twenty-one? Why do I have to pay for a meal plan in the cafeteria? Those are legitimate questions that deserve a thoughtful answer.
Since the Middle Ages, when universities were invented, scholars have known that living in community is incredibly advantageous for learning. In the English universities especially—Oxford and Cambridge—the ideal of living in a “college” was a central feature of university life. The Oxbridge “college” adapts to academia the life of a monastery or priory: instead of monks or friars, the colleges feature students of various ages and “dons” (the professors) living together so that students and professors can have lively exchanges over a meal, a cup of tea, or during a walk in the courtyard. There was a mix of ages in the Oxbridge college—the new undergraduate, the somewhat older student, an older graduate student, the young Don, the older, more experienced Don. In this way, too, the strangeness of university life, where one is pulled out of one’s own city or town and its community and dropped into a new place, is somewhat mitigated by the new, intellectual community one joins. Everyone in this community was, at least ideally, focused on the life of the mind, the world of encountering ideas and mastering new material, and of pushing the boundaries of what is known through research and experimentation. Everyone is there to share ideas, introduce new ideas from one’s own experience and reading and research, challenge one another’s arguments, and push one another into higher achievement, both academically, personally, and spiritually—for, crucially, most medieval colleges retained some connection to a religious order, a saint, or some other religious foundation.
On UD’s Due Santi campus in Rome, where professors and their families live on campus, we have perhaps the closest approximation to that experience to be found in academia. There, students eat, travel, play, and pray with their professors and families; many UD students cite this closeness and familiarity with their professors and their families as one of the most important, influential, and delightful parts of the Rome experience.
In the 19th century, many European universities followed the German model of becoming research-focused institutions, and “colleges” and dormitories began to disappear. When American students visit most European universities today, they are surprised to find there is usually no real “campus”, no dormitories, but instead a scattering of buildings of the various departments through the city. European students find their own housing in apartments in the city where they study, or in attend the university closest to home and live at home. Our own Provost, Dr. Vorwerk, never lived in a dorm throughout his university education in Germany—because no one did.
American universities split between the English model and the German model—with some research-based universities growing to huge sizes, while others became the “liberal arts schools” that kept the small, intimate, teaching-based English model. Both, interestingly, kept dormitories, but the large schools ended up having larger and larger dorms to house their growing populations and often lost that English college ideal, turning into vast complexes of hundreds of rooms. The University of Texas in Austin has a dorm that reportedly has its own zip code and voting precinct!
Here in Irving, we are crucially a small liberal arts university that is focused on the small-class encounter in the classroom and the personal, supportive academic community. We believe in the Oxbridge ideal of an academic community where students come together with one another and their professors not just in the classroom but at every place on the campus--in the dormitory, on the Mall, in the cafeteria and the Rathskeller, on the athletic field, at the cappuccino bar. Living together in close proximity fosters these kinds of conversations, and pushes us all to learn about one another and to become better people. Students share a thriving community where great conversation about these great books and concepts happens. They share community activities, share their interests in clubs and organizations, share spiritual and liturgical life, share fun and silliness—share, ultimately, friendship, a friendship based in higher things, because they are in proximity to one another so often. A campus where only classes take place could not achieve this critical mass.
The traditional halls are the best place to start this sense of community. Research across the country confirms what we at UD have known for years—that the traditional halls get students out of their rooms and give them those chance encounters where they meet others and start the process of becoming UDers. (By contrast, at other schools where freshmen are in suite-arranged dorms, they tend to meet only their suitemates and are cut off from the dorm community as a whole.) When students leave their doors open, wander into one another’s rooms, and share conversation, they often form life-long friendships. As we move to a “house system,” these traditional dorms will become even more important in UD life.
The OSA staff—especially RCs and RAs, but all staff—have as their primary role helping to guide and build this academic and personal community. The RAs and RCs are mentors, facilitators, even big sisters and brothers, helping students join the UD community and form a well-lived life there. Think of them like the Oxford student, graduate student, or Don, further along in the intellectual life, who can show younger students how to become a part of this wonderful experience. They are chosen for their abilities in precisely these roles, and are extensively trained to help students find their best life. Other upperclassmen in the dorm are also older siblings, unofficial mentors, and guides into the life of UD.
And community happens—in cultures around the world—over food and over worship. So the Chapel and the cafeteria have central places in our lives at UD. Breaking bread together—both the ordinary and the sacramental kind—brings people together in community, creates spaces of peace and joy and friendship with one another and with our God. Meals in the cafeteria and Rat, or a cappuccino break, then, become crucial sites of extending the academic and personal formation of the university.
Finally, we want students to enjoy campus as a setting for their leisure—to sing Irish songs by the fire pits, to have fun attending a basketball game, to sample Sunday Sundaes, all in their new polis (or oikos), their home space. Studies show that students who enjoy, and participate in, in campus life are more successful not just in their GPAs but in every other aspect of their four years. So the Student Activities Office and the Campus Activities Board plays a huge role here.
We want as many students as possible to partake in our Oxbridgean academic community—to share intellectual experiences, to grow in maturity and wisdom and virtue, to reach out beyond themselves to achieve true excellence. That is why we want as many students as possible to live on campus.
--Dean of Students Gregory Roper, PhD.