College Holds Forum on Neighborhoods
Issue   |   Wed, 05/06/2015 - 00:22

Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffey and Dean of Students Alex Vasquez hosted the first open meeting to discuss neighborhoods on Thursday, April 30. Along with Coffey and Vasquez, an advisory group of nine students was present at the event to facilitate the conversation and to outline what the neighborhoods concept would look like at the college.

The neighborhood format would create new residential communities by dividing dorms into six different residential areas, with the exception of the first-year dorms, which would remain the same. It has not yet been determined how students would be divided into these neighborhoods, but either an entire first-year dorm would feed into the same neighborhood for subsequent years or students would be sorted by a randomized process. When asked if the neighborhoods would be definitely implemented, Vasqeuz said, “Neighborhoods are part of the strategic plan and the intention is to implement it in some form. However, what I think is important to highlight is the ‘in some form’ part of that sentence.” Coffey and Vasquez announced that the college plans to implement neighborhoods in the fall of 2016.

The idea of a new residential format arose at a strategic planning meeting two years ago. Faculty and student representatives in the strategic planning committee discussed the student body’s dissatisfaction with the sense of community on campus and brainstormed how the administration could improve the current residential life.

“Part of the feedback we have received is that the divisions we have on campus are reflective of the choices that some students can make and others may not be able to make,” Vasquez said in an interview. “For instance, the heterogeneous, engaged community that we are able to create on the first-year quad is a direct result of thoughtfully constructed communities. The neighborhoods provide a structure for thoughtful construction in ways that programming in individual buildings may not.”

“[Living in a neighborhood] is an identity that doesn’t necessarily have a label,” Amani Ahmed ’15, a member of the student advisory group, said at the meeting. “It doesn’t have to have a stereotype or connotation with it. It’s just, I live in this neighborhood. It’s something you can be proud of without feeling a certain way about what that identity means.”

One proposed way to encourage community within the neighborhoods would be to allocate a certain amount of money for events such as neighborhood cookouts and concerts.

“I think we need to support our residential counselors better than we have,” Vasquez said. “Programming budgets for our RCs are very small, and it is important that they are able to do the things they know, which will help their communities come together.”

Students at the meeting raised a variety of issues, asking about the future of theme houses on campus and about how the neighborhood concept will be implemented. Vasquez clarified at the meeting that the current theme houses and their respective selection procedures would remain the same within the new residential structure.

“Theme houses will remain an important part of our residential process,” Vasquez said. “In the current proposal, theme houses would be affiliated with neighborhoods, but if there are other ways to consider the theme house options, we are open and enthusiastic about hearing them.”

Some students at the meeting also expressed concerns that the campus lacks pre-existing architecture to support neighborhoods. Students raised the issue of discrepancies in quality among dorms, because dorms vary widely both in terms of distance from the main campus and in terms of how recently they have been renovated. Some students also pointed out that athletes might want to choose dorms closer to the gym and athletic fields, and the neighborhood concept could prevent them from doing this.

In response, Vasquez said that the administration might create an incentive mechanism to make all neighborhoods more equal, such as awarding AC Dollars to Hill residents for use at cafes or restaurants in town.

Students at the meeting also raised issues regarding the absence of specific architecture to support the neighborhoods at Amherst College. “Residential colleges at Yale, for example, are architectural spaces ­­— libraries, dining halls and such,” Nolan Lindquist ’18 said at the meeting. “Those are physical spaces that require sustained investment. I think it’s a little hasty to plan these communities because it’s the space that creates the communities, and not vice versa.”

One idea offered by the advisory group was to combat this problem is to renovate the current spaces on campus, especially the older dormitories. Another proposed idea was that neighborhoods could also invite local businesses to open cafes in certain locations, which would create more social spaces on campus.

The most thoroughly addressed issue at the meeting was the lack of choice students will have with living arrangements and that it could potentially restrict how restrict how students interact with their friends. In response, Margo Cody ’17, a member of the student advisory group, said, “You are going to still have the agency to socialize wherever you want and with whomever you want. The administration is not controlling our social lives here.”

Following the first open meeting, members of Association of Amherst Students convened to vote on the strategic committee plan at the senate meeting on Monday, May 4. The strategic plan includes the neighborhood proposal.

“I like the idea of having more collective spaces to hang out, but I hate the idea that we are restricted to the same area for two, three years,” Jamie Werner ’16, a student who attended the meeting, said. “I think the administration doesn’t really have a good idea about what student dorm life is like.”

In response, AAS President Tomi Williams ’16, who is in the student advisory group, acknowledged that while the campus is already divided into quasi-neighborhoods, such as the Hill and the Triangle, the requirement of students to belong to certain neighborhoods is what makes the neighborhood concept unappealing to the student body.

Many senators said that the vote might not affect the administration’s decision to implement the neighborhoods, however. AAS Senator Sam Keaser ’17E added that the neighborhood is a small part of the plan when looking at the strategic plan holistically.

Vasquez later said in an interview that he was not aware of the vote that happened at Monday’s AAS meeting. “I’m not sure what the AAS means exactly,” Vasquez said. “[However] I’m happy students are discussing, including the neighborhoods project. Students should exercise their opportunity to have a voice in this process.”

The AAS expressed its approval of the strategic plan with 14 senators voting to approve and six to deny the plan.

Vasquez said that there will be more open meetings to follow, and many plans concerning the neighborhoods are still undetermined. “Neighborhoods will not solve all of our problems, that is a certainty,” Vasquez said. “But a new model for residential life on campus that helps us build a strong, inclusive community, where students feel a sense of belonging, is a good possibility. A lot is on the table, and we want to hear from students who are interested in working to create a model that the community can be excited about.”