From Treehouses to RV Parks, Students Embrace Dorm Alternatives

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Orelia Dann's college living experiences included the standard oddities that young people face when they move away from home: all-nighters, unflushed toilets and a roommate's self-gratifying pet chinchilla.

But for Dann, a 2005 graduate of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., those experiences, now remembered as giggle-punctuated stories, took place not in a dorm or an off-campus apartment but rather in a series of smaller theme houses on the campus of this liberal arts college near Harrisburg, Pa.

Dann is one of a growing number of college students opting out of dorm living and choosing to live instead in alternative on-campus housing that caters to students' interests and concerns.

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Dann slept in the common room of Arts House before she tried the Center for Sustainable Living, or Treehouse, an environmentally friendly house where seldom-flushed toilets helped residents fulfill their aim of water conservation. She spent her senior year in the International House.

"It's still dorms, but it tends to be on a smaller scale," said Dann, 23, who now lives in Philadelphia. "If you don't want to deal with so many people and humongous public bathrooms, you don't have to."

While students at tiny colleges often have smaller houses like those at Dickinson, larger universities are catching on with living-learning programs that try to mimic the liberal arts experience in the cradle of a big institution.

"The idea is to combine the in-class and out-of-class experience, so things that students learn in class can then be modeled into their residence hall experience, whether that be extracurricular activities or say faculty working in the residence halls or peers working with each other in some respect," said Karen Inkelas, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and the principal investigator for the National Study of Living Learning Programs.

The programs have grown in popularity since the late 1980s, when larger universities were "heavily criticized for being giant factories," she said.

At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., more than half of the incoming freshman lived last year in houses with some 30 different topical themes from healthy lifestyles to music, according to James Kohl, house life director in the GW housing programs department.

This year, the university is changing the program, renaming the "interest houses" under broader themes such as global perspectives and diplomacy, education and public service and the science village.

Within those programs, students can choose to join a cohort, studying a more specific topic.

"We've seen continually throughout the program that students that engaged in these [programs] have higher GPAs, get involved in fewer traditional incidents and just tend to be more of a part of the university in a lot of ways — showing that by going on and taking on more leadership roles than the average student," Kohl said.

Inkelas, who conducted a five-year study of more than 250 living-learning programs at 34 universities, found that these programs help students adjust to their first year of college.

"In general, the programs seem to be very beneficial at first blush on helping first-year and second-year students on some of the tasks that are traditionally reserved for first- and second-year students — like making the transition to college, overcoming homesickness, making friends, those types of things," she said.

Inkelas is working on a follow-up study to assess how the programs affect students as they become upperclassmen and graduates.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, each student participates in one of 10 on-campus living-learning colleges, but a select few have the option to live in one of the most unique college housing situations in America: the RV park.

Forty-two lucky students get to live in this on-campus trailer park where the rent, between $385 and $428 a month, is a bargain compared to the $1,300 per month (including the meal plan) most freshman pay.

Students have to provide a camper that passes inspection, but many choose to get their trailer from an outgoing student, says Samuel Bersola, the director of residential and family support services at the university.

"There's certainly a tradition of passing on units from graduating seniors, for example, to incoming first-year students," he said.

The RV park has been a campus staple since 1984, and students have to participate in the freshman theme and core course program of their affiliated college, with topics ranging from ethics and science to social justice.

"They can be in any college and be in any major, but it's just a core course that defines the lens in which they look at things their first year, and hopefully that will form the way they see the world and their education throughout their four years here," Bersola said.

Living-learning programs vary from campus to campus and so do their benefits to a student's education, Inkelas said.

"These programs have really sprouted up in all different shapes and forms," she said. "So the question that we have to answer is 'Do they all accrue the same benefits?' and one would guess that they don't."

For Dann, who found lasting friendships in each of the three themed houses she chose to live in, the experiences forced her to learn to cooperate with her fellow like-minded peers.

"You have more of an aim to come to a consensus in independent living or alternative housing than you would in the dorm," she said. "In the end, I think that's a positive, because people are being more considerate of other people."

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