Reorganization Offers Opportunity to Build Residential Community

There are few Oberlin departments that require as much love, attention, and resources as the Office of Residential Education. Oberlin’s residential facilities are perceived by students as generally subpar compared to our peer institutions. Many students don’t feel their residential spaces are meaningful sources of support or community, and the office seems to be perpetually understaffed — as evidenced by the pending search for a new director.

Furthermore, the office itself is not widely held in high regard by students, who often talk publicly about negative experiences they’ve had with ResEd, both on social media and in the Review. Few students have personal relationships with ResEd staff, and even Resident Assistants — the students who work most closely with the office — openly share concerns about the office’s structure and functions.

Oberlin will soon see widespread institutional shifts once the recommendations of the Academic and Administrative Program Review begin to be implemented next year. We understand that Oberlin will not be able to significantly renovate every single facility that needs improvements during this period of financial austerity, however, now is the perfect time to improve ResEd’s other functions and think creatively about how the office can better serve students moving forward.

The Review reported this week that, outside of the AAPR recommendations, ResEd is already planning to change the function of some of Oberlin’s dorms next year, including turning Zechiel House into a first-year residential space and moving both substance-free and quiet spaces into Noah Hall. This transition is an excellent opportunity to think critically about the purpose and use of some of Oberlin’s dorms while seeking ways to create supportive communities on campus that center around students’ residential experiences and provide opportunities for meaningful connection.

In its current form, ResEd offers students space to live. At best, some students enjoy their time at Oberlin while tolerating its facilities, and at worst, other students suffer feelings of isolation and disconnection from the residential community, leading some to transfer. However, if we get creative enough, the residential experience could be a landmark part of the Oberlin experience, rather than a cause for concern, and dorms could be places where students have the chance to collectively explore identities and interests.

ResEd could become a key factor in preparing students for life outside Oberlin. Because of Oberlin’s three-year residency requirement, ResEd could create programming for all students centered around vital life skills — filing taxes, picking a mortgage, putting aside savings, and planning for retirement, just to name a few. While some of Oberlin’s current programming does this in small doses, there are opportunities to institutionalize these lessons and connect them to the residential experience in a meaningful way. This would not only serve Oberlin’s mission of preparing students for life after college, but also address the shortcomings of the current programming model, which rarely attracts more than a handful of students to programs.

In addition to a renewed critical approach to programming, ResEd should take this opportunity for change, both within its own department and from an institutional perspective, to reconceptualize how communities are formed in residential spaces.

Program housing such as Afrikan Heritage House, Third World House, and Baldwin Cottage, and themed halls such as Sci-Fi and Latinx hall offer some of the strongest, most intentional communities Oberlin has to offer. These residential spaces are key examples of how students can create meaningful relationships when given the space to explore their stated common interests and goals.

These communities also suggest that identity- and theme-based housing has the potential to better engage students in holistic residential life than traditional living communities — a suggestion Oberlin should heed. While we are not necessarily suggesting there needs to be more program housing, this same model of community-building could be applied to Oberlin’s more traditional housing through a student-directed model. This could look like more theme housing, housing organized around academic interests, or whatever other connections students call for.

In order to make this happen, there need to be some significant adjustments within the administrative process to allocate space to students hoping to form their own intentional communities within Oberlin’s residential facilities. Last year, when student group Obility attempted to create a disability-themed hall to support students who have accessibility needs, they reported difficult bureaucratic hoops that nearly derailed the hall’s launch, despite significant student interest. If administrators truly want to increase community at Oberlin, there needs to be a streamlined process for students to design and propose their own living-learning communities (“Students, Staff Chart New Course For Accessibility at Oberlin,” September 2018).

It’s no secret that ResEd as it currently stands is not operating as effectively as it could — it isn’t satisfying its mission of creating campus-wide community and providing students the life and interpersonal skills they need to succeed beyond Oberlin. Luckily for both students and ResEd, there are ways for us to fix this, and this time of institutional change offers a chance for a new residential experience. We just have to take advantage of it.