Colleges need to create dorm communities

By Arts & Culture Editor

Nicholas Barnes, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Chicago, was found dead in his dorm Feb. 15 after students complained about a smell coming from his room. He had been dead in his dorm room, unnoticed for several days.

It had been eight days since Barnes used his university key card to enter his residence hall in the International House dorm. The cause of death is still unknown as of press time, but the Chicago Tribune reported Feb. 17 that there was no evidence of foul play. But the real question is, how can a student go missing and remain unnoticed for more than a week?

Barnes’ death is an extreme example that represents a larger problem facing college campuses nationwide: a lack of community within the dorms. If there were a stronger dorm community at U of C, it wouldn’t have taken days to find Barnes’ body.

Students are achieving new levels of anonymity among their peers by retreating into private rooms and away from public lounge spaces, and residence hall systems put in place by colleges are failing to connect students the way they did 20 years ago.

It’s no secret that college campuses can be lonely, isolating places. The grim consequences for a lacking sense of community on campus can range from depression to self-harm and suicide. For college freshmen, leaving the nest can be hard, and being separated from family and friends’ support systems can take a toll on young adults’ mental health. According to the American College Health Association 2013 National College Health Assessment, 7.5 percent of college students had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months and 1.5 percent had attempted suicide. Additionally, 31.3 percent of college students reported they “felt so depressed it was difficult to function.”

While colleges cannot be held responsible for all students’ mental health needs, residence halls need to take the initiative to actively protect students from such isolation so that tragedies like Barnes’ unnoticed death do not continue. Increased social interaction can improve the overall quality of life students experience in the dorms, benefitting everyone.

Unfortunately, Columbia is no exception to the trend of crumbling campus communities and needs to address the problem.

The fifth floor of the 777 S. State St. dorm building features a pool table, a wide-screen TV, couches, chairs, vending machines and a pool that are seldom used. Areas like this are intended to promote community growth and provide opportunities for students to interact with other students from a variety of majors and backgrounds. At schools like Columbia, where diversity is increasingly important, an active lounge is indicative of a healthy community, something the college clearly needs to work on.

Unfortunately, dorms often feel more like apartment buildings, and it is not unusual for students to know only a few of the people on their floor.

Twenty years ago, computer labs and lounge spaces were the only way to access the Internet, but today, students do not have to leave their rooms to do homework, be entertained or even to eat. Never straying from the well-beaten path between the elevator and the front door becomes all too easy.

However, dorms are still the best venue to bring a diverse array of students together. Even if they find their niche inside the academic environment, students return to their dorms at some point. Colleges and Resident Assistants are responsible for promoting a positive, supportive community within student housing.

While some RAs regularly check up on students, host engaging events and carry out their required duties, others shirk the responsibility, using the job to coast on free housing. Lazy student workers are one thing, but when housing can cost almost $16,000 per year for a private suite in the University Center, according to Columbia’s website, it is unacceptable for them to neglect dorm communities. In addition to ensuring apartments are clean and safe, RAs should also be responsible for community leadership. Columbia’s Residence Life needs to create attractive communities students want to be a part of, which would also promote a better image of the college as a whole. A more in-depth personality questionnaire for dorm placement or the reinstitution of learning communities that group students by major would be a step in the right direction, and would also help students establish deeper bonds based on shared interests.

This isn’t just a Columbia problem. Students across the country experience these feelings of depression and isolation, which could be offset by improving the quality of dorm communities. Barnes’ tragic death represents a legitimate fear many students have of slipping through the cracks and becoming strangers to the people who live closest to them. It is important to note that college is a time of transition, a new and often intimidating experience. Colleges do not need to parent students, but they should provide resources to make the transition comfortable and safe.