First-year residential colleges go themeless

First-year students who moved into the North Residential Village (NRV) this fall may find their residential colleges themeless. While each of the four first-year residential colleges still keeps its unique name, color and crest, themes for these residential colleges were removed by the Office of Residence Life (ORL), in an effort to encourage the first-year students to seek and form their own community identities.

The four first-year residential colleges, Cedar, Juniper, Mistletoe and Magnolia, were originally designed with four different themes to foster group identities and community bonds among first-year students. It was expected that the theme would endow each residential college a characteristic that students could grow attached to through their first-year residential experience. When choosing their first-year housing, incoming students could decide which residential colleges to live in according to the themes that appealed to them the most. Students enrolled in different residential colleges would be invited to events programmed around the themes to echo the features of their residential colleges.

However, in the spring, as ORL reviewed the residential experience programming model, canceling the themes was brought on its agenda. The proposal to remove the themes was based on the First Year Experience Program’s finding that students demonstrate a lack of connection to their residential college themes. A statement given by ORL reported that “students and other stakeholders saw the themes as artificially applied, and not necessarily representative of the group culture.” When talking to admitted students at the open house, ORL also felt that students, when selecting their rooms had more interest in the arrangement of the dorms and weren’t that concerned about the themes.

Mabel Chiu, a member of the Residential Relations committee from the Residence Hall Association (RHA), also points out that the the community councils sometimes felt restrained by the themes when programming residence hall activities. Students at different residential colleges seemed to be pigeonholed to the themes that they didn’t really identify with.

“When it came to residential experience, many first-years did not feel that their college’s theme was what created community for them, but rather it was the people and experiences that made up the college,” said Chiu.

The decision to cancel the themes was made in the spring and was implemented this fall. It is also a step ORL took to be in accordance with the five Division of Student Affairs (DSA) learning outcomes. DSA designed five domains in which it hopes to help CWRU students develop. The five learning outcomes are: social and emotional competence, purpose and intentionality, cultural and human appreciation, community engagement, and problem solving. Since residential college themes potentially limited first-year students to developing only one perspective on being a members of the CWRU community, ORL thought it necessary to remove them. The office now hopes to refocus on the unique constellation of individual students living in the first-year residential college.

“Over time it’s the people in the community that really helps to create the community, and the theme became not quite as necessary once the idea was not so new to the CWRU campus,” commented Stephen Begley, the interim co-director of ORL. However some students do find the themes helpful, particularly in helping them choose the residential colleges before they entered CWRU. Yuvraj Puri, a second-year student who lived in Juniper last year, recognizes the theme as his primary reason for choosing Juniper.

“The theme (for Juniper) is ‘knowledge from multiculturalism,’ so I thought it would be easier for me to fit in there,” said Puri. He found that Juniper had really embodied its theme of multiculturalism with its diversity in residents from different backgrounds. Nevertheless, Puri also mentioned that there were not many theme-oriented events in Juniper to echo its multicultural feature.

RHA, although supporting the decision to cancel the themes, calls for an improvement in communication between students and ORL in making future decisions that affect student life.

“RHA and residents were not consulted on this idea prior to its implementation,” Chiu points out. “While we support the decision to go themeless, it was not something that RHA had a part or voice in.”

ORL accepts the points made by RHA, but also explains that lack of time was the major reason why student opinion was not given sufficient regard.

“I don’t think we disagree necessarily with [RHA’s] assessment on that,” replies Begley. “One of the factors pushing this decision was getting the correct information out to the incoming first-year students. So to do that we had to make a pretty tight timeline on our decision.”

Begley also recognizes that, ideally, student feedback should be involved in making decisions that are closely related to students.