Residence Life: A Student Housing Company’s Dream, A Parent’s Nightmare

The programming a designer has spent a career supporting is making separation from home almost too easy for his own child.

Ron van der Veen, AIA, LEED AP

He doesn’t need me.

I am quickly learning an important lesson about student housing today compared to when I was in school: Residential Life is designed to make kids NOT want to visit their parents.

Since dropping off my son a few months ago, he has barely acknowledged his family heritage. He doesn’t call. He doesn’t write. He doesn’t text, Facebook or twitter. AND he doesn’t come home.

As I mentioned in my previous column, I do not want to be a helicopter parent, and I am really enjoying his new found freedom. He seems to be blossoming! But how could he seemingly forget so quickly and dramatically the very two people who were most influential in getting him to college in the first place?

The problem I see is with all this holistic residential life programming I personally bought into all these years as a designer. I mean why would he want to come home? The res-life staff at his institution treats him better than his parents! They never yell at him, they empathize. They address him like an adult, and he has almost unlimited freedom. In addition, he has a continual stream of programs in his residence hall that keep him engaged, educate him, help him socialize and encourage his sense of social well-being. Sure he has to occasionally do the laundry and clean his dorm room. Our washer and dryer are in a dank basement, while his laundry area is next to a daylight-filled study space with a view of the mountains — how unfair!

And the food: He has such a wide variety of healthy and appetizing cuisine choices that going out with dad when he comes to town isn’t a big deal. I’d actually rather eat in the café on campus than a restaurant close by, even if I have to share my son with 15 other guys from his floor.

This all makes me reflect again on my dorm experience from 30 years ago. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? My beloved alma mater created a residential experience for students that seemed to dare us to come back another year-and most didn’t. I came into my dorm life naïve enough to assume it must be a huge privilege to be there since so little was done to make me feel they cared. Going home and getting away from dorm food was a liberating experience. In those days, it was a lifestyle upgrade!

Well, my son is coming home this weekend, but not because he misses our cooking, or clean sheets, or laundered clothes, or even a good chat with his wise old dad. Nah, he is coming home to see a few buddies from high school. His residential life experience is just making the transition from parents to adult life a bit too smooth and effortless.

I have to admit, his college experience is so much more nourishing than mine ever was. The understanding that his emotional and social welfare will have a direct impact on his academic performance is a definite evolution from where I came from. And with the cost of education as it is today, I consider it basic customer service. I guess it’s not that bad knowing my son is being taken care of, and listened to, and treated like an adult… I just wish they could make him miss us more…

— Ron van der Veen, AIA, LEED AP, is the design leader for the Seattle office of DLR Group and leads the Student Housing Center of Excellence for the company. DLR Group is a national integrated design firm of architects, engineers, planners and interior designers. dlrgroup.com.

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