Opinion: Housing may feel Crowded, but is Actually Business as Usual
The 2022-23 school year has presented Willamette with a larger first year class than the university had seen since before the COVID-19 pandemic. First year students are normally dispersed throughout these different dorms on campus: Baxter Hall, Belknap Hall, Cascadia House, Matthews Hall and Northwood, Southwood and Westwood Halls. This school year, a new addition to this selection of allocated first-year-only dorms has been presented: Kaneko Commons. Contrary to popular belief, the reasoning behind this expansion of first year living spaces is not due to an above-average influx of new students; in fact, the university is no stranger to these larger numbers.
Dean of Admissions for the College of Arts and Sciences Sue Corner said in an interview that she likes to say that admissions is an imperfect science, but there are certainly goals: “Our goal is to have a very similar number to what we have this year… 525 first year students and about 30 or so transfer students for this coming fall. Our predictions are that we will, that we're on target for that… but it's hard to ever say absolutely until we get to May,” she said.
Many students currently on campus have never witnessed the pre-covid Willamette setting. The sudden push of new freshmen may be new to them, but not to the long-term faculty.
“In 2020, COVID kind of caused numbers to drop. So this is actually more normal than that would have been… enrollment dropped a couple of years before that as well. I've been at the University since 2004, so what I'm used to is an incoming class of 475 or more—that was the normal for us until about 2017-18,” said Assistant Director of Residence Life Tori Ruiz.
When asked about Willamette continuing to admit more freshmen, Corner described the incoming classes as not being larger, but being what the campus is really built for. It feels bigger, maybe, to those who have only been here a little bit but it's really not growth. It's just kind of a return to what is the norm, she said.
The first year experience at Willamette has been tailored over the years to help improve this very new journey for students.
“First years used to live in Lausanne and Doney as well. But as numbers dropped, they created the first year area—Baxter and Matthews—since first years have different experiences. But now with rising numbers again, they will be expanding to Kaneko,” Ruiz explained.
Luis Marquez (‘26) made a dorm switch from Cascadia to Kaneko for the spring semester. “I really enjoy the space that it provides, and it’s really convenient that there’s a lot of things in there, like spaces to study, to hang out, it makes me not want to leave most of the time,” he said in regards to living in Kaneko. “Before, where I was at in Cascadia, there wasn’t a lot to do, and it was really secluded, so if I wanted to hang out or study, I’d have to move. But Kaneko makes it convenient… even just residential living—there’s a lot more movement in my hall [than Cascadia],” he explained.
Corner reiterated the aim for first year students to continue to be in large cohorts together. “There's a benefit for first year students not to be sprinkled all over campus, but to be together as much as possible. So I think the goal is to have them in the west side and then kind of go kind of into large batches,” she said.
Marquez provided his first-year perspective on this subject: “I think it’s kind of odd that… the class is split up. When I was in Cascadia, most of my friends were living in Kaneko, so I’d have to either hop over there or meet in a mutual space. So I think it’s a little bit inconvenient that [freshmen are] split up. Granted, there’s a big number of students, so I doubt they can do anything about that, but it is weird that they formatted it that way,” he said.
It appears that despite expansions, there is no need to be concerned about the university’s housing capabilities, even with the new freshmen classes to be consisting of 500 plus new students.
Director of Residence Life Heather Kropf is confident in the housing infrastructure and organization of students that the university has. However, making sure students understand the university’s housing policies has proved to be the only slight issue she has faced.
“…There has been a bit of a struggle getting folks to consolidate when we have two rooms next to each other and one student in each room. We like to open up one of the rooms and make it so that the other room is full capacity with two students in it… then the other room is available just in case we need a place for someone else to go who's having roommate troubles or if they're having other life troubles. And so we ran into a situation we tried to consolidate at the end of the semester, so that when we got into spring semester, we'd be all ready to go. But some folks didn't want to move, and that's understandable. I mean, if you're in a single room by yourself and it's kind of cozy, that's where you want to stay. But you signed up for a double occupancy room. That's what you're paying for. And at the beginning of the semester this year, we ran into issues where we had no place to put some folks who really needed some emergency housing or a new space. And so if nothing else, I just want folks to realize that it's important. We're not consolidating just to make you move. We're not consolidating just for whatever we're consolidating because we actually do need those rooms and we do have folks who are in need,” she said.
All in all, the university is on top of first year housing, but would like to make sure that current students are aware of a few things: “We will not be offering folks the opportunity to buy a double occupancy room [to be used] as a single. In the apartments in Kaneko and the whole university, if it's a double occupancy room, we will require two people in it unless there is an ADA accommodation that tells us otherwise. That's not new to the university, but it is new to the current students; because we've been at lower occupancy, we've allowed people to buy out [double occupancy rooms] so that's just a little bit of a different thing,” clarified Kropf.
With more students comes more opportunities for the university. “For me, it's exciting to see the robust enrollment post COVID, because when you look at the number of things to do on campus—the number of student leadership opportunities, the number of clubs, the number of athletic teams, all of the things that there are to do—we need enough students to be able to fill all of those roles to keep all of this vibrant student life going. So I feel like that 500 or 525 number is such a good, sweet spot. I'm very optimistic that we will enroll right where we're hoping to,” Corner expressed.
The handling of the swift adjustment back to the usual, higher enrollment numbers has been well done with care and organization. The university proves to be a welcoming place for first year students, and though it may be a bit more crowded than some are used to, the lack of filled rooms and energy that the pandemic left it with is fading away, and campus is being revived.