As the 2022-23 school year begins, first-year students fill residence halls, leaving behind the comfort of life back home. New students commonly arrive on campus with preconceived notions about dorm life.
First-year Francis Hall resident Sofie Wardzala said she initially faced some discomfort when she moved on campus.
“For me it’s really overwhelming to be away from home for the first time,” the history major said.
Freshman MorganAshli Harper said she was nervous before stepping foot into her dorm room in Mertz Hall. Older than Francis Hall, the all-first-year residence hall was not something that appealed to her.
“I heard bad things about Mertz going in,” Harper, 18, said. “I was really nervous about community bathrooms.”
Wardzala also made assumptions about the two-year-old dorm, Francis Hall.
“It was the honors dorm,” Wardzala,18, said. “[I thought] no one was going to speak to each other; everyone is going to be working all of the time.”
Resident assistants (RAs) utilize different strategies to strip dorms of negative stereotypes. Additionally, RAs strive to create a positive environment, cultivating a community and smoothing the transition to university life. One common approach that RAs take to creating a more welcoming environment is by decorating the hallways.
“Each person [on my floor] has their own dragon which welcomes new people into the community,” Harper said. “The dragons almost say, ‘We are here for you. We are showing that we care.’”
Francis Hall Resident Assistant Sophie Mayday said she recognizes that floor themes not only bring people together, but can also just be a fun way to escape the cold nature of dorm architecture.
“I believe the camping theme I chose has allowed my residents to get in touch with their nature-loving sides as well as provide a change of scenery from the industrial city of Chicago,” the sophomore wrote in an email to The Phoenix.
Mayday welcomes her Francis Hall first-years in more ways than just decorations; she takes other approaches to develop relationships and create a safe space.
“Before the fall semester began, I sent a welcome email […] to get to know my residents,” Mayday wrote. “I also prioritize monthly mental health well-being check-ins and have an open-door ‘office hours’ type policy every weekend.”
Harper recognizes her RA’s creation of a comfortable environment for her first-year students.
“My RA has a chair in her room for when people are stressed and having problems,” Harper said. “Life problems, homework, stress, professors, she will help. She does a great job welcoming people.”
First-year Campion Hall resident, Genevieve Kempf, explained the role her RA has had in getting her acclimated to dorm life.
“It’s more about guidance, it’s the relationship of having a big sister on the floor…just to help us without being so threatening,” the 17-year-old said.
Kate Coburn, a business major who shares an RA with Kempf, emphasized her closeness with her and the RA.
“She doesn’t treat us like children,” the 18-year-old said. “Which is nice because she’s only a year older.”
On top of being a person to talk to, many RAs also schedule events to help first-years develop relationships with others from the same residence hall.
Coburn describes an event she had hosted for her floor where her RA got the floor Insomnia Cookies, acknowledging that small events have a tremendous impact on new students. Wardzala said that these interactions bring her satisfaction, while providing an easy way to mingle with others.
“I miss my family and friends from home, so [the dorm events] are a really good way to meet people, especially since we are currently at the beginning of the semester,” Wardzala said.
Living away from home in a dorm can be a major stressor for some first-year students. Whilst some Residents seek to build relationships and strive for lasting memories, RAs set out to break down barriers and guide them along the journey in this transitional stage.
“Everyone has been super nice,” Wardzala said. “It is better than I expected it to be.”