Straight Up Talk: Neighborhoods Pros and Cons



Neighborhoods will happen.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news but if you went to the Neighborhoods talk yesterday, April 30th, you know that the administration is doing everything in their power to make neighborhoods a reality.  Students should not waste their energy resisting the system.  Instead, I think we should highlight the Pros and Cons of neighborhoods to ensure that those of us who will experience it can still prosper in the Amherst College environment, but also help future Amherst students by making this a system that they will love too.  


Why All The Talk About Neighborhoods


In March 2014, the Mental Health and Wellness Center conducted a series of interviews and found that about 75% of students at Amherst College felt lonely in the last year.  That means out of every four students you see in Val, that you sit next to in class or even lives on your  floor three of them at some point last year felt lonely.  This percentage was 20% higher than the national college average. Obviously, we have a problem. The administration noticed.


For two years, the administration researched other schools with lower loneliness percentages to analyze their systems.  They concluded that our residential structure limited community building.  Many other colleges modeled their living situations where students of all grades would live in one area of campus and then continue throughout the years in either the same building or same area.   I talked with people at Harvard, Yale and Williams (three schools that utilize this system) and got their opinions.  For the most part, they agreed that they felt a bit of loyalty and community to their residence halls.  Many of them said that if given the opportunity to live somewhere else, they would continue to live in their current residence because of the connections they made and the attachment to the area itself.  


WIth the recent loneliness statistic, the administration felt the heat to fix this situation before it gets any worse.   So, they intend to implement the neighborhood the year of 2017.  


Getting Over The Initial Logistics


Nothing is set in stone.  Especially when it comes to the transition  year of 2017, at this point, no one knows how it will be handled.  Perhaps students will choose in Room Draw in the Spring as usual and then become part of that neighborhood in the fall.  Perhaps, students will stay in the neighborhood of their previous dorm.  



No one knows and it’s hard to base an argument without the cold facts.  


So, yes, as a member of the Class of 2017 who may write thesis, I am worried about transitioning into the new system.  However, when arguing this I am looking to better the system for the future of Amherst.  As an alumni, Amherst will follow you for the rest of your life.  If Amherst declines, so does your career and reputation. As a current student, I am doing my best to make sure this institution stays on top not only for its great opportunities in academics but also for it’s ability to graduate students happy about their undergraduate college experience. By fairly critiquing the system, I can do that.


Good Ideas That Could Work


Neighborhoods as an idea is great.  It would be nice to have more traditions on campus. It would be great to see students who may not cross paths on a regular day bond when organize a neighborhood event. Neighborhoods anthems, flags, and colors would be fun for those of us who enjoyed Harry Potter.  The idea of themes like The City dorms, Cultural Culinary dorm or, my personal suggestion, Hippies dorms could be fun. When visiting  different neighborhoods we can experience a different type of living style within Amherst College.    


Another great thing is that Amherst intends to pump money into this.  For example, The Hill is the set of dorms that people oppose to living in the most.  The biggest turn-off is the distance and one idea to solve that is giving Hill residents $12 on your AC card a month to spend at Black Sheep.  I especially like this idea because I think Amherst should put money into businesses in town through student AC cards.  (We go there anyway and we are much closer that UMASS students who get that perk!)  My concern with the quality of the Hill dorms (occasional blackouts, loss of hot water, sketchy unknown stains on the walls  etc.) would be fixed, hopefully, with the funding that would be pushed into developing older buildings.  They hope to make cafes, and central points for students in different neighborhoods.  Everyone will have different perks to make up for the oddly shaped proportions that taking our widespread dorms and making into neighborhoods would present.  


Then there are Opt-Out options.  Senior switch was proposed to allow seniors to move out of their neighborhoods into a lottery for Jenkins or Tapland.  Or they could choose to live in a thesis writing dorm like King and Wieland.  Theme housing would still exist to keep the communities that already foster in these places.  Lastly, anyone truly unhappy does not have to stay in their neighborhood and could be relocated.  




The first concern is not completely mine so I will touch on it briefly.  The president of Drew House, Christine Croasdaile, mentioned how much the quality of theme housing may go down because of people wanting to get out of neighborhoods.  She also added theme houses’ obligation to fill in all the rooms will hinder how many people they can turn away.  To this, the advisory board said theme house presidents would need to properly screen for genuine interest.  My concern are ethnic group based theme houses like Drew House, La Casa, and Asian Culture House.  How do you regulate someone’s interest in a culture?  Should Drew only accept blacks?  Should they only except black studies majors?  Should they be wary of people who don’t fall into either of these two categories or into only one of these categories?  How can they do this without being seen as racist?  


My main concern is the goal of neighborhoods.  Do we want to create a sense of community or friendship?  I think neighborhoods will create community but I do not think it would necessarily make friendships.  Coming from someone who lived in a small dorm that had a big community, I realized very quickly that my connections in my dorm were geographically based.   This revelation made my first semester of sophomore year quite lonely.  I kept it in for a long time which lead me to want to transfer from Amherst.  I began to openly talk about my discomfort to those I thought I could trust and through that I found a handful of people who were willing to stand by me during this dark time and pull me out of my funk.  These are the people who are my true friends, only a few of them were from my old dorm.  I think it illustrates my point between community and friendship. I was part of the Williston community and I still love being around them, but they were not all my friends.  During the meeting, I found this line very hazy and it sounded more like friendship than community building to me. As someone who part of a community but still felt lonely because of the lack of friends, it is very important to distinguish this line. What exactly do we want neighborhoods to accomplish?  


Light At The End of The Tunnel


During freshman orientation, I participated in CEOT.  This community engagement program splits students into four teams, two based in Amherst and the other two based in Holyoke.  The teams in the same area will have about two mixers but for the most part you spend the most of your time with your team.  You have a team color, a team name and leaders who can turn to for guidance.  The plus side was that everyone who went on CEOT has a bond from sharing the same experience.  You tend to flash your team sign to your fellow CEOT group members even if you don’t hang out with them regularly.  There is also a cute rivalry on who is the best team where the battles usually end in laughs and good feelings all around.  


With CEOT in my mind, I can say that neighborhoods could work to foster that community if done properly and if everyone is willing to participate. Lack of interest will only cause people to push away from the idea and to make it fall through.  Like I stated before, neighborhoods will happen whether we want it to or not.  As it stands now, I and many others are still leaning against it.  We need to work together to make sure that this system reflects the needs and the wants of students here now and for many years to come.