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W&L to Upgrade First-Year Housing as Part of Residential-Life Review

First-year housing at Washington and Lee University will undergo a significant renovation beginning in the summer of 2013, following the initial recommendation of a task force studying all aspects of residential life at the University.

The charge of the task force flows from the University’s 2007 Strategic Plan, which specified improvements and enhancements to first-year residential life plus consideration of upper-class alternatives. It’s all part of a renewed commitment to a rich residential-life experience for W&L’s students.

The plans calls for two residence halls — Graham-Lees, the oldest residence hall on campus, and Gaines Hall, the youngest — to be transformed and to house all first-year students.

“We felt it was urgent to tackle the first-year experience,” said Sidney Evans, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, “given the outdated physical facilities and the needs we know exist, in Graham-Lees in particular.”

Evans co-chairs the task force with Dallas Hagewood Wilt, a member of the W&L Board of Trustees.  The former chairman of Kraft Enterprise Systems L.L.C., in Nashville, Tenn., Wilt graduated from W&L in 1990. As a trustee, she chairs the board’s Campus Life Committee.

Graham-Lees started out as two separate buildings constructed in 1904 (Lees) and 1920 (Graham). In 1940, they were joined, creating a maze-like interior. Its non-air-conditioned rooms house 228 first-year students: men on the first and second floors, women on the third and fourth.

As for Gaines, “we think of it as being new, but it’s not,” said Evans. Built in 1988, it is coed, with 111 residents, single-sex suites and common rooms within its four air-conditioned floors. “The interior, with the suites, is isolating,” said Evans. “Students are reluctant to live there despite the air conditioning and other amenities. There’s no reason for students to come out of their rooms into the hall, which reduces the possibilities for community that are particularly important for first-year students.”

The renovated Gaines will contain pods of single and double rooms, study nooks, program spaces and shared hall bathrooms. “That gives us flexibility to organize the building in a variety of way,” continued Evans. “For instance, we can do more with mixed-gender halls for those who want them.”

The exterior and surroundings of first-year housing are also under scrutiny. “We are hoping to open up the spaces between the first-year halls to unite them visually,” said Evans. “We want to think more deliberately about outside space and draw people out of their rooms.” Wilt envisions “a wonderful triangle of green space.”

Providing more outlets for students to socialize is another part of the task force’s mission. As Wilt put it, “Can we invoke more of a community, with men and women, students from different classes, engaging together on campus?” New facilities in the first-year halls could engage students with programs, lectures, even classes. Wilt thinks the plan for Graham-Lees and Gaines will create “a real community of first-years.”

One of the main questions in front of the task force, in fact, is “whether there is a way to provide more opportunities for men and women to interact outside of the classroom and outside of a party,” said Evans.

“Students interact in a very unstructured and informal sort of way throughout their first year, in the residence halls and the dining hall,” she explained. “And that changes dramatically at the beginning of their sophomore year.”

Wilt became interested in the environment on campus after attending the 2010 W&L Women’s Leadership Summit.  What grabbed her attention at that event, which convened women students, graduates, staff and faculty, was the picture the students painted of two separate experiences for men and women.

Evans, Wilt and the other members of the task force have been doing a lot of talking with all constituencies since the group first convened in the summer of 2011. They’ve also visited peer colleges and universities with innovative approaches to housing, and toured all of W&L’s student residences.

Since one of the tenets of the Strategic Plan was to “provide improved residential space for upperclassmen/law students,” the task force also is analyzing the current living patterns of sophomores, juniors and seniors and assessing on-campus housing for upper-class students.

“Our primary goal is to see if our residence life supports our educational goals,” said Evans. “And does it promote development of the kind of community we want?”

The task force comprises staff, faculty and trustees, and has a five-student advisory group. It is weighing financial feasibility, existing housing, staffing, programming and best practices. It is also examining such interwoven factors as students’ desire for independence and the existing student cultures. Wilt thinks its work will only improve the lives of students.

“I have a real vision for the first-year community,” continued Wilt. “I’m excited about creating new housing. And I’m focused on students having fun and being safe.”

Residential Life Task Force

  • Debbie Dailey, Assistant Provost and Director of Institutional Effectiveness
  • Sidney Evans, Vice-President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students (Co-chair)
  • Brooke Diamond O’Brien, Women’s Lacrosse Coach
  • Ben Gambill ’67, Trustee
  • John Hoogakker, Executive Director of Facilities Management
  • Elizabeth Knapp ’90, Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Geology
  • Joel Kuehner, Associate Professor of Physics and Engineering
  • Sally Lawrence P’08, ’10, ’12, Trustee
  • David Leonard, Dean of Student Life
  • Pam Luecke, Professor of Journalism and Department Chair
  • Steve McAllister, Vice President for Finance and Administration
  • Robert Sadler ’67, Trustee
  • Dallas Wilt ’90, Trustee; Chair, Campus Life Committee (Co-chair)

Residential Life Student Advisory Committee

  • Caitlin Edgar ’12
  • Taylor Gilfillan ’13
  • Kathryn Salvati ’12
  • Jarrett Smith ’12
  • John Wells ’12

To send a comment to the Residential Life Task Force, click here.