Letter to the Editor: Group housing

Group houses on campus were one of the things that I was instantly drawn to after my initial visit to Lawrence: little communities of people exploring and bonding together outside of the dorms. Now I am a senior and I have lived in small housing every year I could. If I have learned anything from my time in group houses, it is this: group housing is a total and complete nightmare. It is a frantic scramble to collect all the pieces needed to survive another year.

I live in SLUG, which is without a doubt one of the most demanding houses on campus. It takes a lot to keep the garden alive—literally. Now I’m the RLM and I do my best to keep everyone happy while trying to make it out of my senior year. We are working to ensure our house sticks around for many more years to come, not only to take care of the garden, but also to host events and remain a vital part of the Lawrence community. Unfortunately, we were almost not able to apply for a house because we had one empty bed for one term. The process of applying for a house is complicated and dramatic. I understand why and I appreciate the efforts of all who work to make it happen. But it would really suck to lose all of our traditions and support for the garden because of one bed being empty for ten weeks. 

I’ve noticed that younger folks on campus are clued into something that took me a while to notice—though trying to engage yourself throughout this campus is an endeavor that will likely leave you angry and tired, it is optional! A regular Tuesday during my sophomore year might have looked like this: I would leave my afternoon class, head straight to an artist talk or something of the sort, then go to a club meeting, a CODA conversation or otherwise optional but important event and then maybe another meeting before it’s nine at night and oops—I forgot to eat! All of these events were so important to me and felt like a priority, but they also were just an optional part of my academic and social life.

 I do not want to play the busy game; this may resonate or even seem tame in comparison to your schedule. My point is that younger people at Lawrence seem more hesitant to jump into new obligations other than those they deem absolutely critical to their social wellbeing and passions. I think that is healthy, but I also think many organizations are hurting for members. I know this change has affected more than just SLUG. Frats fill their houses now with non-members, and sometimes it seems that the key to keeping a group house alive in many cases is knowing each other and having some vague overlapping interest. But sometimes even that is not enough. 

I think the burden of group housing failures lies mostly with Campus Life. I feel that organizations that provide so much to our campus culture, both socially and materially, deserve more help and support for this process.

Deep in the heat of Wisconsin in August, I drove my car from the farm I was living on in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, back to Appleton to start my last year on campus. I was eager to move my things back into SLUG before doing some field work for a class I was in. When I arrived, I almost didn’t recognize my house. Lawrence had given SLUG a fresh new paint job in the summer—the faded, chipped off-white was now an elegant blue with white trim. I laughed, walking inside to the same old mess. 

A fresh face-lift seemed like a joke compared to how desperately our common spaces needed upgrades. It seemed like a symbol for how Campus Life sees our organization. When I was a tour guide for a term, our manual specifically highlighted the view of the garden from the top of the Warch Campus Center—at that point we were instructed to talk about all the things we do for campus. Every weekday, a couple SLUG members carry bins filled with hundreds of pounds of compost from Bon Appétit into our garden. We sell lots of our produce back to them to feed the campus. It is a beautiful picture from the outside that does not account for the just how hard it really is and how badly we need help. The paint job is Campus Life’s projection of SLUG, the self-sustaining organization that racks up thousands of community service hours each year combined. The inside picture represents the reality of the garden: beautiful but built on unstable land. It feels like it could all fall apart so easily. Even by a single bed for one term. 

I love my well-worn house. SLUG has lived here for years, and generation after generation has left its mark one way or another. It has character! While the newer, bigger lofts win us out in space and functionality, our house is a real home. I even love our stove that only opens about three-quarters of the way before it hits a radiator that doubles as a spice rack. For all its drawbacks, I will cherish the moments that we have spent squished into our old worn-out couch watching movies and all the meals we’ve spent with plates on our laps because there is no room for a dining table. I ordered and painstakingly assembled a kitchen island our sophomore year to replace our tiny old one, and that is just one of the many marks I know I’ve left on the house.

Maybe my mistake was the expectation of acknowledgment that what we do is important. We are turning Bon Appétit’s literal garbage into life! We’ve been trying to sustain our community without help or support from Campus Life—except facilities services; thanks for the trucks! I love the labor I give to this organization and do not regret it for a minute, but as soon as I think about how it is co-opted by Campus Life as a selling point for our “green missions,” I get a sick feeling of exploitation.

We will probably survive this year’s housing fiasco, but who knows what happens after that? I urge the student body to question what to do now that the campus culture is changing. Group housing feels like a nightmare—I know other RLMs can relate—and longevity of housing is discouraged. If the consensus is to let the chips fall where they may and prioritize new groups over existing ones, then so be it. In many ways I agree and acknowledge why housing rules have changed—I’m looking at you, frat houses—but the brand new Sage loft that was built and then left unfilled suggests that this might not be the answer. And there’s so many other issues than I can acknowledge here—like, uh, how not having singles in most of the new lofts is ableist. 

In spite of all this, I would like to get off my chest that living on campus all four years kind of sucks, and group housing made it suck a lot less for me and we should really talk about what the hell is going on here!