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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

There’s a place for us…

In these days of higher enrolment, students must shop around to find a room, let alone one that’s right for them - and let’s not forget about living off-campus.

By Luma Muhtadie
The Globe and Mail

For many nervous first-year students, it is the most important aspect of university life: their first home away from home. A place where they will struggle to cope with more demanding schoolwork and make friendships that last a lifetime.

Schools across Canada strive to provide cozy, cheerful digs and the in-house guidance that frazzled frosh need, and the University of Western Ontario has done this splendidly.

Western students ranked their school first for residences on the University Report Card survey. Brock University in St. Catharines was ranked second, followed by University of Quebec at Trois Rivières, University of Guelph and Wilfred Laurier University.

The secret to Western's success begins with a guaranteed residence for every first-year student coming out of high school - a feat that many universities, laden with extra students from Ontario’s double-cohort year, are finding hard to emulate. McGill University and the University of Toronto have both resorted to buying hotels this year to add extra accommodation, while Dalhousie and other Atlantic universities have seen waiting lists for student rooms increase dramatically.

“We've always felt that residence was a very important component for students choosing a university,” said Susan Grindrod, Western’s associate vice president of housing and ancillary services. “It's a place to meet a lot of people and become part of a community, and if you're having problems - social or academic - there's always somebody in residence you can talk to. We just don't want people to fall through the cracks.”

Western's on-campus living community in London, Ont., comprises 4,200 students in nine residences - a mix of suite-style and dorm-style buildings that all share the prestigious stone-and-ivy look reminiscent of an Oxford or Cambridge. The Thames River flows through the grassy 150-hectare campus, which is dotted with lush trees.

Ninety per cent of students living in these buildings are in their first year. The remaining 10 per cent are upper year students who have already been through the growing pains and are there to ease what would otherwise be a clumsy transition.

Dons and residence advisers live on each floor and help frosh deal with personal or social problems; sophs are second-year volunteers who organize the ice-breakers and socials to create the unique culture that has become a trademark of residence life.

“When I first got to Western I didn't know anybody, but the sophs were great,” said Krystal Dawe, who lived in Western’s largest residence, Saugeen-Maitland.

“They made you feel so at home, and they made you mingle with everybody. By the end of orientation week, everyone knew each other and you had no problem going from floor to floor talking to people or asking them if they wanted to go out and party,” she said.

When Anton Vidgen moved into Delaware Hall last year, he was anxious to get involved on campus. His don helped him connect with several groups and clubs and also became his good friend.

Now in second year, Mr. Vidgen is himself a residence adviser and new first-year students are already dropping by his room to ask for advice or simply to chat.

“I remember in Grade 9 it took me a full year to make friends. Here at Western it took me two weeks,” he said. “I'm still close with those friends and there isn't any reason why I shouldn't be speaking to them in five or 10 years from now.”

In-house mentoring extends into the academic realm with academic programmers: upper-year students who organize study groups, tutorials and exam preparation sessions. APs also arrange to have faculty members visit the residences so students can make their acquaintance in a setting more intimate than a 300-seat lecture hall.

The faculty-based floors in all of Western's residences buttress the system of support, by enabling rookie students to draw on each other for study help. But Western also has special floors organized according to student interests. Among them: leadership floors that cater to those with a penchant for public speaking, student politics or community service; an international floor mixing foreign students with Canadian ones; a cook's corner where residence chefs provide tips and techniques to students, and an alcohol-free floor, where 75 students live.

Ultimately, the residence atmosphere that satisfies students is one that’s more akin to a home than an institution. Universities that were unable to create this atmosphere fared poorly in the survey.

The aging dorm-style residences at Alberta's University of Lethbridge - ranked third-to-last in the survey - were described by several students as “concrete dungeons” and “death-like,” with limited hot water and a lack of personal space.

Since then, Lethbridge has opened six new townhouse-style units with vacancies for 96 students, as well as front porches and lawns and the school plans to construct more of these in the future.

The single dorm-style residence at Montreal's Concordia University, which ranked second-to-last, houses only 144 students in a city with a dearth of rental housing.

The University of Windsor's residences ranked last in the survey. With half of its first year students commuting from home, the school has struggled to replicate the kind of environment seen in residences where almost all of the frosh eat, sleep, study and party in the same quarters.

A word of warning: Universities with highly rated residences are rarely located in towns or cities where off-campus housing is equally affordable and of good quality. Western, the University of Quebec at Trois Rivières, the University of Moncton (Moncton campus) and Brock University are among the few that enjoy this happy combination.

Even a school such as Queen’s, which enjoys high satisfaction ratings across most areas of the URC survey, strikes out not only when it comes to campus residences (26th) but also the quality of housing off campus in Kingston (dead last at 38th). ROBTv Workopolis