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Brandeis University students Laura Mandelberg (left) and Jordan Frazes sat in Mandelberg’s room within the residence hall devoted to students interested in social justice.
Brandeis University students Laura Mandelberg (left) and Jordan Frazes sat in Mandelberg’s room within the residence hall devoted to students interested in social justice. (Evan Richman/ Globe Staff)

Like recycling? Cooking? Then welcome home

College housing gets specialized

WALTHAM -- Laura Mandelberg is a dedicated Democrat whose contribution to the decor of a suite at a Brandeis University's residence hall this year will be life-size cutouts of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Bill Clinton. Jordan Frazes is an avowed environmentalist who plans to post and preach the rules of waste recycling in the suite.

Their point of intersection, the two seniors say, is social justice, and this year they will live the cause -- literally-- in one of two residence hall suites Brandeis has devoted to students interested in ``Justice, Service & Change."

``In a regular dorm, you go out to dinner with your roommates," Frazes said. ``Here you plan events to effect change with your roommates."

At universities and colleges , students with shared interests are increasingly funneling into shared living spaces called thematic housing. The idea took root in the 1970s but is expanding dramatically on campuses now as students demand such niche housing, and schools eagerly supply it in a hyper-competitive college market.

The move, schools say, also has an academic aspect. By creating housing centered on a theme, colleges can inject more structured learning into residence halls. Faculty members are assigned to help students plan and organize campus events that promote their interests -- be it social justice, substance-free living, or cooking.

``What schools are recognizing is that student affairs and academic affairs are not silos," said Connie Carson , president of Association of College and University Housing Officers. ``The student experience is affected by both and integrating the two is important."

The themes vary widely. Some are broad, even amorphous. At Brandeis, for example, in addition to social justice, the school offers living space centered on global affairs , health and wellness, and the arts. The themes were chosen based on focus group input gathered two years ago.

Other schools offer more narrowly focused themes, often derived from individual student requests. At Colgate University , students interested in foreign film can live together; at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., students interested in recycling and environmental issues share quarters, and at Wesleyan University , which has 28 themed houses, students interested in Buddhism have living space to themselves, as do students who deem themselves ``eclectic." Students say a major draw of the housing is the sense of community it offers, an element many say was lacking in their previous housing assignments.

``The guys on my floor were respectful, but they weren't the kind of people I hang around with-- they were jocks," said Thomas Ahn , 19, a Brandeis sophomore from Queens, N.Y. ``It was hard to find balance."

Ahn's new assignment is the health and wellness residence hall, which school literature describes as a place for students to explore the physical, spiritual, and mental health dimensions of wellness. Ahn said he hopes to find like-minded students who can help him balance his social life and his studies, something he struggled to achieve his freshman year.

Jessica Nu , 18, a sophomore from Dallas, said she struggled with a roommate who kept a different schedule and a different social circle. She also will live on the health and wellness floor, where she hopes her suitemates will offer support.

Officials at some colleges shy away from creating themed residence halls, saying they promote self-segregation and restrict the sort of whimsical learning that happens in an ad hoc living environment. Williams College , for one, states unequivocally on its website that the school provides ``no special interest housing."

``The belief is that students will interact more with people who are different from them if their residence hall isn't segregated," said Jim Kolesar , a Williams spokesman. ``We don't think they are evil, but our ethos has been to have open housing."

Harvard College, too, rejects the idea. Housing at the campus, where 97 percent of students live in college residences, is random. Exceptions are made in cases for friends who request to live together, said Bob Mitchell a spokesman.

Harvard, though, some educators point out, retains the residential college system, where faculty or staff live in the residence halls and link the living spaces with academics. The classical practice, imported from Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Great Britain, fell out of favor at many schools in the 1960 s as a wave of anti establishment fervor pushed adults, faculty and den-mothers, alike, out of dorms.

In their place, colleges hired staff trained to help students cope with development and college pressures, such as balancing study and social life, eating habits and stress. But the system left a vacuum of intellectual influence in the dorms, educators said.

``We went from providing students with a benevolent authoritarian to serving students and aiding their inner development," said Charles Schroeder , vice president for student affairs at North Georgia College and State University and coauthor of ``Realizing the Educational Potential of Residence Halls." ``The current thought is: How can residence halls contribute to the academic mission. Which is where themed housing comes in."

Studies have shown, he said, that thematic residence halls improve student performance. He pointed to a University of Missouri study that showed that students living in themed housing achieved higher grade point averages and higher retention rates.

At Brandeis, the structure of themed houses is still being worked out. Last year members of the social justice housing group were told that they had to create a certain number of campus programs and events. Students balked, and this year, there are no quotas, said Amanda Denemark , who is the student residence hall adviser to the social justice students.

Students in the program, of which there are eight, said the open-ended structure suits their group.

``We took the initiative to sign up, so we are just as motivated to follow through," Frazes said.

Asked what they might like to pursue as a project, they said they had ideas, but had yet to meet as a group and agree on one.

There is, though, one piece of business they will be getting out of the way first.

Mandelberg, who is active in Brandeis Democrats, said, ``We haven't had the `Are you a Republican?' talk yet."

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Sunday about themed college dormitories incorrectly described a student's life-sized cutout of John F. Kennedy, the late president, as his son, John F. Kennedy Jr.)

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