The Mason Spirit

Dorm Sweet Dorm

Housing raises the roof with new building projects

By Tara Laskowski

When most people think of dormitories, they think of cramped spaces, bunk beds, fattening cafeteria food, and long lines for the showers in the morning.George Mason University is attempting to change that image. Along with other innovative, progressive steps in education and technology, the university is updating and modernizing student living on campus. Mason is constructing two new residential buildings that will give students more comfort and more options, and is providing alternative living arrangements for special-needs students.

The two new structures together will house 1,000 students. Housing V, tentatively called Liberty Square, will accommodate 496 of those students in two- and four-bedroom apartments with full kitchens. The building, located near Presidents Park, is scheduled to open in August 2003. Housing VI, which will break ground in March 2003, will house 504 students in four- and six-bedroom apartments. It is set to open in August 2004.

“ This is a big step up from current facilities,” says Paul Barkett, director of Housing and Residence Life. “The apartments will give students their own bedrooms, which was a need we were hearing from students.” The project will also include renovations and an expansion of the Eisenhower Hall community building. A cafeteria, a 50-seat multimedia room, and individual study rooms are planned.

Although Mason has been known locally as a commuter school, that image is quickly changing. Currently, more than 3,000 students live on campus, a number that is expected to increase by 1,000 in the next few years.

According to Barkett, the new buildings help promote the university’s message about the importance of a residential community on campus. Housing VI, which will be located at the intersection of Braddock and Roberts roads, will be the first Fairfax Campus building that will be visible to the outside world. The fact that it is a housing building, he says, suggests a change in attitude is taking place.

The Office of Housing and Residence Life promotes the message that the residential community is important with its annual Academic Recognition Banquet which honors residential students who have achieved a 3.75 GPA or higher. According to Theresa Metzger, residential academic coordinator, the banquet encourages and commends on-campus students. “It’s a positive way to make our students proud of themselves,” she says.

In addition to all the benefits of being near classes and friends, students living on campus have the opportunity to participate in themed learning communities that combine academics with social activities. Mason’s Living and Learning programs have placed the university in the top 20 schools for learning communities in the U.S.News & World Report rankings in 2002.

The Living and Learning programs—which include the Mason Topics, University 100, and the University Scholars honors programs—offer specific courses and activities geared toward students’ individual interests. Students take one or two classes with the same people on their floor, and their social activities in the residence halls are often an extension of their classes. Extracurricular activities may include movie nights, field trips, or pizza and study sessions, and are often hosted by professors.

Students in Mason Topics can choose from such areas of interest as the American Experience, Ancient Studies/Modern Frames, the Global Village, and the Information Society. In the University 100 Program, groups of students interested in community service, performing arts, or the outdoors can live together and develop that interest together. University Scholars are scholarship recipients who reside on the same floors, which allows them to interact and bond with one another.

“ The theory behind these programs is that students—especially those in their first or second year—at a large university are happier and perform better if they are part of a smaller community within the university,” says Richard Nanian, coordinator of the American Experience and Ancient Studies/Modern Frames programs. “By taking some classes together and living in close proximity, they form a stronger bond with each other and to the university.”

According to Julie Pinilla, a freshman marketing major and Mason Topics student, the Living and Learning experience has been positive. “It’s really nice to get together with your hall mates and discuss assignments and share different ideas,” she says. “Living on campus is probably more beneficial, but no doors are closed to commuting students.”

Other themed communities in which students with similar academic and social interests live together include the Healthy Living Floor, the Patriots Academic Community, and the Cultural Passports Floor. On a Healthy Living Floor, students participate in programs on stress management, nutrition, exercise, academics, and spirituality, and promise to keep the floor free of cigarettes and other tobacco products, alcohol, and drugs. The Patriot Academic Community focuses on study and promises a floor devoid of excessive noise. For international students and American students interested in different cultures, the Cultural Passports Floor provides a global community that shares different cultures, heritages, and other interests.

“ These programs are a great academic support system,” says Metzger. “They help bridge the gap between the learning world and the social world.” Combining the themed communities with the new building structures will give students even more options. In the future, Metzger says, a women’s studies floor and a women’s science floor will be available to women pursuing those interests.

Barkett hopes the design of the new buildings, with their single bedrooms and private wings, will appeal to more graduate students and suggests that certain floors or wings could possibly be designated as graduate student housing or other specific types of housing. “We’ll have the option of providing smaller, targeted living arrangements,” he says.

Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions, says that the new housing will be another step forward for the university. “In many regions of the country, Mason was never known as a commuter school. Instead, we are known primarily for our areas of excellence, particularly the arts, economics, law, public policy, information technology, and the sciences. As opportunities for housing increase, that appeal and reputation grows even stronger.”