A Campus of One’s Own

Living on North Campus has become a freshman rite of passage. Is Cornell’s housing experiment working?

West Campus Scene
West Campus Scene

On a clear morning in mid-August, the sun glints off the fresh green paint on the newly remodeled Thurston Avenue bridge, whose completion has come just in time. Having spanned Fall Creek Gorge for generations, the bridge now links the entire freshman class on North Campus to the rest of the University—particularly on days like today, when thousands of parents roll across it in heavily laden cars to deliver the newest Cornellians to their dorms. Contrary to what most alumni remember, this ritual is no longer spread across the Hill; since 2001, all freshmen have been required to live on North Campus. The concentration of 3,055 new students in one place means a more chaotic move-in than in bygone years, and these days the exchange of cell phone numbers is the first step toward making new friends. Many of the students are moving into buildings where athletic fields stood less than a decade ago. Still, some things will always be the same: tearful goodbyes, nervous introductions, dazed-looking parents giving last-minute advice.

Unlike many of its peers, Cornell does not hold small gatherings throughout the summer, but instead waits until the whole class is assembled on the Hill for a six-day orientation. This year’s theme was music, with “American Idol”-inspired events and a printed guide modeled after Rolling Stone magazine that promised to help students “be a rock star at Cornell.” Some orientation events have become Cornell traditions: discussions of the campus-wide book project, the “dump-and-run” yard sale (where everything from shoes to mini-fridges can be had on the cheap), and the “freshman migration,” a march of the entire new class across the Thurston Avenue bridge and onto central campus. In the evenings, free T-shirts and food abound at events like the Big Red Blowout, where students can sample the smorgasbord of campus activities. “Cornell goes to such lengths to make you feel welcome,” says Meghan Corcoran ’11, pondering the possibilities of the polo team and already sporting a Cornell shirt. “It’s great to have an event where you get a chance to see what’s out there and meet other freshmen.”

These days, though, orientation is about much more than figuring out how to get a kosher meal or check out a library book. It’s the first step in a system that was designed ten years ago, when then-president Hunter Rawlings announced his vision for a new residential initiative. That plan, the culmination of dozens of proposals for new student housing over the years, included what for Cornell was a radical concept: the housing of all freshmen on North Campus. Living on North as a freshman has since become part of the Cornell experience; the first class of seniors who all resided there during their first year graduated in 2005. “I thought it was perfect, because everyone is in the same boat,” architecture major Molly Chiang ’09 recalls over lunch in Goldwin Smith’s Temple of Zeus. As a student in the smallest—and, arguably, most close-knit—college on campus, Chiang appreciated the broader opportunities offered on North Campus. “A lot of my friends stayed close with the people they met freshman year. It’s a great way to meet people you might not otherwise, and that helps you throughout your time at Cornell, both as a student and as a person.”

While the North Campus experiment is still evolving, early measures of student satisfaction have been promising. Through a survey administered to seniors every four years, administrators have been able to track reaction to the initiative— albeit indirectly. The survey compares Cornell students’ opinions to those of Ivy League peers and comparable smaller colleges. Areas in which Cornell was on the lower end of the spectrum eight years ago include availability of faculty and level of student diversity. While there is no way to directly link it to North Campus, increased student approval in those areas in recent years coincides with the residential changes meant specifically to address them. Overall, general satisfaction with housing seems to be at an all-time high. “We’ve seen a dramatic upturn in students feeling a sense of community over a period of about ten years,” says Susan Murphy ’73, PhD ’94, vice president for student and academic services. “For years we’ve talked about Cornell being a community of communities, and we’ve always done a wonderful job of helping students find anchors—now we are focusing on helping them discover how they fit into the broader university.”

Administrators also hope that North Campus will be a lure for prospective students—that its sense of community will offset possible concerns when high school seniors are choosing between Cornell and smaller liberal arts schools. Like a surrogate family, the arrangement is designed to give freshmen the confidence to go out and take risks in the larger university. “I didn’t look at North Campus when I was applying to Cornell, but once I got here it made a huge difference,” says Katie Cumnock ’08, a biological and environmental engineering major from Colorado. “I think I would have been more intimidated if I had to live with upperclassmen right away. A lot of my friends at other schools lived in all-freshman dorms, but they were scattered across campus, and it made it harder to form a community.”

Molly Chiang

The overarching issue that unites the pieces of the North Campus puzzle is a desire to create a common experience—not an easy thing to do for a class of more than 3,000. Without first-year programming, many freshmen would never meet the majority of their classmates, particularly those in other colleges. “In terms of housing we think of the freshmen as one class, but the colleges think of it as seven classes,” says Murphy. “We can’t do what smaller schools can—put them all in an auditorium and do team-building exercises.” Cornell has instead focused on creating intellectual and experience-based connections, like the community reading project—an effort that began by having all freshmen read the same book before coming to campus, but has grown to include not only the whole Cornell community but also area libraries and high schools. The book choices have ranged from classics like Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby to this year’s The Pickup by South African Nadine Gordimer. And although the reading project has had its detractors among freshmen—some of whom feel it’s a premature start to their first-semester homework—Ag student Carolyn Junior ’11 points out that even grousing can serve a purpose. “A lot of people I know didn’t really like the book,” she says of The Pickup. “But it still brings you together. Even if you hated it, at least you have something in common to talk about.”

Adam Taylor

The most visible elements of the initiative are the new buildings that have transformed North Campus. Modern and angular, they include three additional residence halls and a community center. Across from Helen Newman, two of the dorms fill in the northern and eastern sides of a quad shared by Balch and Clara Dickson halls; further to the east, a larger dorm, Mews Hall, stands on former athletic fields. Nearby is Appel Commons, which houses a dining hall, fitness center, and lounge, among other amenities. The interiors of the dorms are sunny and bright, flooded with natural light and filled with cushy chairs and study rooms. “They’re beautiful, and they really fit your idea of what a dorm should be like,” says Arts and Sciences student Lauren Peterson ’11, taking a snack break from a Sunday study session in the revamped Robert Purcell Community Commons. But the new dorms house only about 500 students; Peterson is among the majority of freshmen housed in older buildings with fewer amenities. She lives in one of the high-rises, which are organized into suites instead of rooms on a central hall—an arrangement she finds isolating. “It’s sort of like a cave,” says the Minnesota native. “It’s darker and people don’t leave their doors open. I don’t know most of the people on my floor, so if you don’t get along with your suite-mates you’re going to have a more difficult time making friends.”



With North Campus in place, administrators are now focusing on making residential life more appealing to sophomores, juniors, and seniors. A key element is West Campus, whose dorms are open to all undergraduates except freshmen. Announced along with the North Campus initiative, the West Campus portion includes five new residences to replace the crumbling U-Halls. Each houses 375 students, a faculty dean’s apartment, a dining hall, and study rooms. Administrators hope that living in a particular residence will give students a stronger personal connection to the University, similar to the identification with houses and residential colleges at Harvard and Yale. “Before, we were sending the message that you had to live on campus freshman year,” says former president Hunter Rawlings, “but after that we wanted you to leave.”

Three of the houses—named for former faculty Alice Cook, Carl Becker, and Hans Bethe—are finished, with William Keeton House opening next fall and a fifth and final house under construction; the entire project is slated for completion in 2008. (A new Noyes Community Center, including a gym and climbing wall, opened last spring.) Unlike the new freshman dorms, the West Campus houses offer suites and singles; gender-neutral housing, which would allow male and female students to share a suite, is expected to be in place as early as next year.

The cost of the new West Campus is estimated at $200 million; although the number of beds decreased during construction, it is expected to remain constant at about 1,800, with new ones offsetting those lost in the demolition of the U-Halls. With the construction of more comfortable dorms, administrators say, Cornell has also seen increased demand, with many upper-classmen calling for the same housing guarantees now given to freshmen, sophomores, and transfer students.

Today, about 50 percent of undergraduates live off-campus. But if the current trend continues, a majority of students may soon opt to live in University housing instead of disappearing into Collegetown. This would represent a major shift, not only from current logistics but also from Ezra Cornell’s original vision that students should live within the Ithaca community—which contrasted with Andrew Dickson White’s desire for an autonomous campus. “They’ve done a good job of making West Campus more appealing,” says Jaimee Lockwood ’08, a bio and nutrition major. “When I was a freshman, it was nearly impossible to get into a nice dorm as a sophomore, so I moved off-campus.” On-campus living, she says, “has become a much more viable option if you don’t want to have to deal with landlords and leases.”

campus scenes

For many alumni, a visit to North Campus may be a bit dis-orienting; most of what they remember is still there, but there are large new facilities filling what used to be the vast space between Mary Donlon Hall and Helen Newman. (Helen Newman itself is the last remaining North Campus construction project; it is slated to receive a facelift as part of the new capital campaign.) On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the scene in Donlon looks similar to what it would have been two decades ago. Music blares from open doors, students play video games in rooms littered with textbooks and empty pizza boxes. But the experience is fundamentally different from that of earlier generations in that freshmen sleep, eat, study, play, and work out in a bubble dominated by their classmates. “I didn’t think about how living with only freshmen would affect me before I came here, but now I really like it,” says Peter Weiss ’11, watching a football game in an upstairs lounge. “The arrangement of Donlon as double rooms on a hall as opposed to a suite is good because if all you have is your room, it forces you to go out and meet people, and it’s great when all those people are freshmen.”

Cornell’s first-year class is diverse not only in race but in ethnic background, social class, and academic interests. While having such a broad population is an asset to the University, helping new students overcome their differences to form a cohesive class is a constant challenge. “Every year a quarter of our undergraduate population changes,” says dean of students Kent Hubbell ’67, BArch ’69. “They come from different backgrounds and all over the world, and yet they are supposed to become a part of our community. So part of that first-year experience has to be about conveying our values to students.” Imparting those values begins as soon as students set foot on campus, when they view presentations like “A Tapestry of Possibilities,” which consists of skits that encourage them to be accepting of difference. Such events—which are mandatory—are designed to lay the groundwork for other optional programs throughout the year in residence halls and the Carol Tatkon Center, a freshman resource center located where the Balch dining hall used to be.”I was aware of these programs as a freshman, but I didn’t take enough advantage of them,” says archaeology major Adam Taylor ’08, now a mentor and student manager at the Tatkon Center. “I realized how important it is to know that this community is here to support you, whatever your interests are.”

The center’s mission—to help students integrate their classes with their personal lives—embodies what has become the theme of North Campus and Rawlings’s housing initiative in general: “living and learning.” Dormitories are staffed by resident advisers and faculty-in-residence, and at least one course—the freshman writing seminar—holds some of its sections on North Campus. “We don’t want the gorge to be this demarcation between ‘when I think and when I don’t,’ ” Murphy says. “[Former vice provost for undergraduate education] Isaac Kramnick used to refer to the curtain that comes over campus at four-thirty, and that’s not true of today’s students. It’s a much more integrated life, and we are trying to reflect that.” And for many current students, the intensity of Cornell’s courses makes the idea of having a social life unaffected by their studies seem inconceivable. “Even as a freshman, I couldn’t have separated work from my personal life—I learned pretty quickly that I needed to be on campus doing work even after class was over,” says Cumnock. “North Campus offers a lot of opportunities to extend academia beyond just lectures, which is a good model for the time when you graduate and what you study has an impact on the rest of your life.”

Family Life

In keeping with the living-learning philosophy, the faculty presence is an integral part of the new North Campus experience. Professors live in many of the dorms, organizing programming and making themselves available to residents for anything from academic help to a round of Monopoly. Near Eastern studies professor Shawkat Toorawa lives in Mews Hall with his wife and two daughters, ages ten and thirteen. He has hosted films and lectures on Islamic culture, and often simply leaves his door open or invites students over for dinner. “A lot of people are drawn to us because of the girls and my wife,” he says, “which has to do with a desire to be around a more familiar domestic arrangement, not just because I’m a faculty member.” Junior, one of his residents, has been a frequent babysitter to the girls. “They’re always having dinners and events,” she says. “It’s great to have that connection in a dorm setting.”


The initiative was designed, in part, to guide students toward such wholesome pursuits—and away from alcohol. Cornell’s large fraternity and sorority presence, combined with high stress levels, had led to a party scene that mirrored the intensity of classes. “Cornell has a well-deserved reputation for hard work, but because of that students would need to let off steam after class and also partied very hard,” says Rawlings. “It created this unhealthy two-culture situation—that of the classroom and the peer culture on nights and weekends.” By gathering freshmen together and offering opportunities for non-alcoholic fun—which includes everything from “root-beer pong” and movie nights to a capella shows and tours of the Johnson Museum—North Campus provides options beyond the work-hard, party-hard cycle.

The switch to an exclusively freshman campus also acknowledges recent developments in understanding how pivotal the first year of college can be: studies have found that students who have a successful first year are more likely to be well-adjusted throughout their time on campus. Greg Eells, director of psychological services at Gannett Health Center, says that having freshmen on

North Campus creates a buffer between expectations of complete independence and the reality that students often struggle to make responsible decisions. “At eighteen, legally you’re an adult but your frontal cortex isn’t as developed as it’s going to be even at twenty-five—you’re going to be more impulsive and less able to predict consequences. Having the students together on North Campus has allowed us to create more of a safety net.”

While older alums may scoff at the idea of college students needing this level of support, many of today’s freshmen have parents who are more closely involved with their college careers than in generations past—the so-called “helicopter parents” who hover over them—which can sometimes make the transition to independence more difficult. “North Campus is a great entry into Cornell,” says Taisa Priester ’09. “You have all the independence you want, but you’re aware that there are professors and people there to help you if you need it.” Priester, a pre-med student, compares going back to North Campus as a junior to visiting your old elementary school. “You make your first friends there,” she says, “and figure out who you are at Cornell.”

LIZ SHELDON ’09 is a French major and former CAM intern.

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