A Clustered Community?

Features Editor: Nicholas Tay

How cluster housing revolutionized the way Messiah students live together.

When students applied for housing for the 2011-2012 academic year, they noticed a new rooming option – clustering. This unique housing alternative offered those interested the opportunity to live in aggregated groups of three to six rooms. That year, residence life designated clustering only to Miller and Hess dormitories. 85 men signed up for clusters. None were formed in Hess.

Fast forward a year. Now Residence Life offers clustering to all upperclassmen dormitories and dedicates at most two-thirds of all floors to clusters. Almost 500 students apply, with 58 distinct clusters present. What caused the significant shift in attitudes towards clustering?

Rhonda King, Messiah’s director of housing, believes the reasons for the explosion of clustering are two-fold: the upperclassman desire to live with friends, and the first-years’ hope of keeping their freshman floor community.

Before Residence Life (Res Life) offered first-year housing in 2004, students lived in “homesteads.” This housing arrangement allowed students to stay on the same room or floor from one year to the next.

When Res Life made the switch to first-year housing in an attempt to improve the first-year experience, they found decreased communication and weaker communal ties within the upperclassmen dormitories.

Noticing the lack of upper class community, Res Life discussed the issue and decided to introduce the option of clustering as a way for “first year students to continue living in their community or upperclassmen to live with their friends.” In short, Res Life hoped to build better communities within upperclassmen halls.

Although there was no official student request for clustering, the Housebook cheating issue – where students with earlier housing sign-up times were reserving rooms for their friends with later sign-up times – indirectly hinted students’ desire to live together.

King states, “Even though we weren’t asking the question, the feedback was “we want to live with our friends and it’s important for us to live with our friends.” We were trying to hear the student message, although that’s not the way we wanted to hear it.”

There was mixed reaction at SGA student forum to Res Life’s cluster housing proposal. Students voiced concern for those not in clusters. They raised questions such as, “If I’m living on a floor where there’s a cluster, will I be left out?” dominated the forum.
Dave Downey, Mountain View dorm’s Resident Director (RD), acknowledges these issues. He identifies the “tendency to create divides and cliques on the floors” and the possibility for non-clustered individuals to experience isolation from their floor communities are the major challenges cluster housing faces.

Downey ensures students that “the resident assistants (RAs) and RDs have kept this problem in mind and we want to work at connecting the different clusters. More specifically, we want to concentrate on the people on clustered floors who aren’t in clusters and make sure they aren’t alienated from the floor community.”

King received no negative feedback directed towards clustering from students, yet she does not rule out their existence. “I was afraid students living on floors with clusters would complain about the lack of housing. However, I didn’t get any complaints. I’m sure there are people out there unhappy with the lack of rooming, but I’ve not heard anything yet.”

While Downey admits some clusters will find branching out and interacting with others difficult, he has also seen the presence of community begin to form between clusters on one floor.

Guys from both clusters on Mountain View 4th arranged ultimate frisbee pick-up games with a cluster from a different building. Downey praises the guys’ willingness “to come out [from their clusters] and spend some time together.”

Downey attributes the success of the Miller floors in the initial cluster offering as an indicator of the program’s potential.

“We wanted to use the clusters in Miller as a case study. We wanted to see the impact on their floor communities and, for the most part, it was very positive. Those floors had really strong connections with each other. There was a lot of identity in the clusters and the guys really enjoyed living and spending time together.”

King agrees, “The guys in Miller who I talked to, they had a great experience. They loved living together.”

Downey believes the clustered floors radiate heightened levels of enthusiasm unseen in previous years. “There was energy and excitement at the all-hall meetings in previous years, but we could tell there was a greater level [of energy] this year as people were excited to live together with their core group of friends.”

He admits “it’s a challenge getting upperclassmen to participate in the programming for their floors, but this year, I can tell we are getting increased participation in the different programs the RAs initiate on their floors.”

If clustering becomes the norm for dorms at Messiah, King suggests the apartments may follow suit. While students unofficially create clusters of apartments, King sees the official nod from Res Life as an obvious move if clustering continues to prove beneficial. Possible options include allowing students to claim all four apartments on a floor or a section of an apartment.

Downey believes “clustering will be a huge part of the upperclassmen culture and the way we do housing” if the experience continues to cultivate identity and community for the students involved.

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