At this point, googling my name yields a result with the subtext: “Luke Contreras. 2024 Class. CONTRIBUTIONS. A Multistory Failure…” The latter part of the text is the title of my recent column lamenting the coldness of UChicago’s flashy mega-dorms. I always read those words––“A Multistory Failure”––and smile. However, I stop and consider a line towards the end of the piece that says, “the new residence halls have the potential to serve their purposes quite well.” Is it true?
I am fortunate that my experience with UChicago’s unique residential structure, especially last year, has been positive. In an unprecedented year affected by the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I formed meaningful connections with my house members that continue to this day. In discussions with students who also ended last year with a net positive experience, I found one thing in common: They praised the work of their Resident Heads, who worked tirelessly to build a house community despite the remote format. In the absence of normal in-person meetings and gatherings, the role of the Resident Head proved to be the determining factor in whether residents connected with each other. They started conversations with their residents and engaged them in dialogue that resembled that of a colleague. Our Resident Heads are the key not just to achieving UChicago’s vision for residential communities, but also to helping us navigate our emergence into the professional world.
What differentiates UChicago’s Residence Heads from typical residence hall directors is their closeness to students. This is not just an “unspoken” idea, either––the University explains that “few University faculty or staff positions have closer involvement in the lives of College students than the Resident Head,” and the role is described as “a demanding job” that requires “genuine enjoyment of students.” The University uses this language to emphasize that they are to go beyond just planning house events or enforcing rules. On a yearly basis, Resident Heads must initiate a house community among new and existing members. Eating meals with residents, holding house meetings, and occasionally sending out emails are the bare minimum in achieving this type of environment. They must initiate sincere interactions with their students daily, listening to and advising them.
Without proper mentorship, it can be hard for students to understand how to interact in the real world. College happens during our transition out of adolescence, a time when we start becoming more comfortable with the idea of being an adult. Coming into college for first years is especially daunting, as (except for their housemates) they primarily share space with individuals older and more experienced. Many people believe that Resident Heads serve—first and foremost—to prevent students from making poor decisions and ensure adherence to University policy. Their role should be more active than this. Without parents or older guardians around, the only adults that students can rely on in the dorms are Resident Heads. Through daily, sometimes even trivial, conversations, students can become more comfortable interacting with individuals much older than them. Resident Heads should treat their residents with the same respect that they might a colleague. This idea is not rooted in any sense of entitlement on the student’s part; rather, it can teach them how to address their own colleagues in the future.
It is also important to understand that there are even more pressing issues facing students. Across the country, colleges are now enrolling a generation of students who experience high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. With these being widespread among college students, the generation is experiencing a mental health epidemic. The pandemic exacerbated the crisis by isolating us and sending some into personal crises of their own in terms of their families, relationships, or finances. Resident Heads should be a student’s first point of contact in accessing a more extensive network of support at the University when it comes to mental health. Without their guidance, it could be hard to navigate the confusing options available to students.
Lastly, with everyone living in such close proximity, it is important that they connect residents to each other so that a house community can begin to form. House events certainly build a sense of comradery, but approaching students more openly and informally can foster more natural connections between them. Living with a group of people who are inclusive and supportive of each other is a crucial aspect to the college experience. Resident Heads can and should prioritize developing this type of environment.
While I have spoken to students who praise their houses, I have also heard the complaints of those who did not experience any house culture, did not connect with their housemates, or hardly saw their Resident Heads. This is the saddest reality of residence life––that some students are forgotten in a residential system that is designed to support and educate them amid the rigorous UChicago experience. Every Resident Head needs to reflect on the house community that they have created, how available or approachable they are to students, and their general presence in the house. In addition to reading their yearly feedback surveys, they should have open conversations with their students to understand what they need to improve and ways that they already succeed as Resident Heads. The position is not at all a job one should take lightly. Resident Heads are not our friends nor our disciplinarians but are often the only adults in which students can confide for more personal help and support. Taking these steps can prevent residence life at UChicago from being reduced to “A Multistory Failure.”
I recognize that the University’s search for candidates is thorough and comprehensive, which is why I want to highlight how important they are to a UChicago student’s journey through college and beyond. While the job of Resident Head can be disciplinary, their role should also be educational. UChicago has one of the best-suited residential systems to help transition its students from their high school years to adult life, and Resident Heads are the most important avenue through which the University can accomplish this goal.
Luke Contreras is a second-year in the College.