Retro: The evolving living arrangements for freshmen

June 13, 2018

This summer, anxious freshmen prepare to see their new living quarters and meet the person they will be living with for the next nine months. Duke students arriving as freshmen today live on East Campus, which has been specifically designated as a first-year campus since the fall of 1995. But the freshman experience has varied widely since Duke became a university in 1924.

Back then, men and women lived on East Campus (then the only campus). The opening of West Campus in 1930 allowed the university to create a coordinate college system; men were housed on West and graduated from Trinity College, and women were housed on East and graduated from the Woman’s College.

Starting in 1930 and well into the 1960s, it was the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) or the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) who would meet the arriving freshmen and help them find their dormitories. The freshman handbook in 1930 advised students to write ahead to reserve a room, but if you hadn’t you were advised to “go to Mr. Whitford’s office in the basement of the administrative building and you will be able to get a room key and assignment there.” All students were asked to bring sheets, towels, and blankets. Rugs, curtains, and lamps were optional, but “will make the room more attractive.” Freshmen were also asked to bring a typewriter—if they had one. All male freshmen were required to wear “dinks” (beanie hats) and women to wear bows, each with their class years. Although freshmen were not housed together as a cohort, they were nevertheless instantly distinguishable.

Dormitory life for freshmen continued in much the same way up into the 1960s, by which time dinks and bows were a relic of the past. As Duke desegregated and diversified in the 1960s, the realities of interracial life on a formerly segregated campus set in. The housing application forms, for a brief time, included questions about willingness to room with a person of another race or nationality.

With the changing student body, new residential models, including all-freshman dormitories, were being tested. In 1969, the Committee for the Study of Student Residential Life, co-chaired by professors Thomas A. Langford and Howard A. Strobel, issued a report addressing various aspects of Duke residential life, with considerable attention given to freshman-only men’s dorms. The report noted that the dorms had an “enjoyable esprit de corps” as students navigated their first year at college. Among the downsides, though, was social strife: “The freshmen are isolated from the rest of the university. They usually have great difficulty in meeting and getting dates with girls. Their initial contacts are ordinarily made in somewhat artificial meetings in the girls’ dorms. There the freshmen have to compete with upperclassmen, a competition that they usually lose.”

In conclusion, they wrote, “[i]t is true that all the freshmen are going through the same trials and share their experiences; it is conversely true that the all-freshmen house is one of their more serious trials.”

Although the report did not spell the death knell for all-freshman dormitories, experimentation continued with other residential models. The merging of the Woman’s College into Trinity College offered new opportunities for coeducational living arrangements. Based on the 1969 report, “federations” were developed; they would have a cross-sectional (multiple class years) population and provide an intellectual and social framework for students. Different houses, both selective and independent, were brought together under the program. This new model was implemented in 1971 in several dormitories. However, new students could still elect to live in a variety of other housing models. The federation model was phased out in the 1980s.

Other scenarios were also investigated, including “clusters” of dormitories and residential colleges. Multiple studies and reports were produced.

Finally, in 1994, a new report, “Plan for the Enhancement of Residential and Co-curricular Life,” recommended a new model for freshman life, with all freshmen rooming on East Campus. Noting that what was missing from the Duke residential experience was an overall sense of community, the report’s authors stated, “The plan to house all first-year students on East Campus emanates from the assumption that entering students, when housed together in a relatively tranquil environment, in close proximity to faculty and an array of academic support services, and with opportunities to participate in small seminars, writing courses, and other academic and co-curricular venture experiences, will flourish and grow.”

Indeed, since 1995, freshmen have found a community on East Campus. No longer are they greeted by the YMCA or YWCA, but rather by professional staff, a move-in crew of older students, and a robust orientation program. Members of the new first-year class will not, for the first time in recent memory, be allowed to pre-select their roommate, a change made to better introduce students from different backgrounds to one another. And so the story of freshman life will continue, but the anticipation and excitement of beginning the Duke journey will never change.

Gillispie is the university archivist.