Should they stay or should they go? Psychologists weigh in on value of freshman-only dorms

Originally published on Amherst Wire

(Morgan Hughes/Amherst Wire)

AMHERST — At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, first-year students are typically placed in freshman-only residential halls. Some say this experience helps to form friend groups and make connections. Others say that freshman-only dorms can breed a problematic atmosphere for the university’s youngest students.

Further complicating matters, UMass has the third-largest on-campus residential population in the country, with more than 13,000 students residing in the university’s 51 residential halls, according to a 2013 independent review. The school’s size can make the transition more difficult for some freshmen, according to Richard Halgin, a UMass psychology professor.

“When you look at the freshman dorm situation at UMass, particularly with the Southwest dorms, you’re putting an 18-year-old, sometimes 17-year-old, into a population that’s sometimes bigger than the towns they are coming from,” Halgin said. “There are 5,000-plus individuals living in that acre … It’s a culture shock.”

Halgin says that while many students acclimate to the new environment just fine, for others, it can facilitate bad decision making.

“There’s the excitement of coming to a new place, being free from family, having a long leash and doing some things that you wouldn’t be able to do in your family’s home,” Halgin said. “It’s exciting, yet at the same time it can be overwhelming and intimidating.”

James Frank, a senior BDIC major, said he feels a culture of peer pressure can sometimes cause freshmen to make mistakes they later regret.

“There’s a lot of pressure when people come to school to be a certain way and figure it all out at once,” Frank said. “This belief that one isn’t good enough can cause people to do things they normally wouldn’t to be cool and find a crowd.”

Frank did not come to college right out of high school. He took a gap year to live abroad in Honduras. He says living in Central Residential Area Gorman Hall was a negative experience, partly due to the age difference.

He called freshman dorms a “toxic environment” and said he found it hard to connect to his peers amidst partying and what he considered unhealthy attitudes towards sexual engagement.

Chance Viles, a senior journalism major, also lived in Gorman Hall his freshman year and says there’s a lot of pressure on freshman to make friends quickly.

“Freshman year can be hard if you are a quiet person. So much about that first semester freshman year is about meeting people,” said Viles. “It makes your time harder if you miss the boat. It puts you at a disadvantage,” Viles said, although he recalls a smooth transition from high school to college personally.

Callie Hansson, a junior journalism major, acknowledged this environment can be problematic, but said the freshman dorm experience is still ultimately a valuable one.

“Not having to worry about coming home and facing your parents after a night of drinking lets things get out of hand. You’ll do it more often,” Hansson said. “I struggled a little bit my freshman year but I’m a very independent person so it wasn’t too bad. I went a little crazy but I got a handle on things.”

Hansson lived in Brett Hall her freshman year, a multi-year break-housing accommodation in Central that was necessary due to her position on the track team.

“I’m really jealous of the people who got to live in freshman dorms. Everyone I knew in freshman housing was really close with their floor,” Hansson said. “It seemed like a lot of shenanigans and fun times. I wish I got to experience it.”

Gabriella Vacarelo, a sophomore psychology major, also enjoyed her freshman year experience. Vacarelo lived in the Commonwealth Honors College’s Oak Hall and sees the value of freshman dorms.

“It’s easier for freshmen to find each other and make friends when they all live together,” Vacarelo said. “When everyone who doesn’t know what’s going on is together it’s more of a bonding experience.”

Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at UMass believes ultimately, there’s enough value in having freshman-only dorms to keep them around.

“The freshman dorm gives people a place and space where they can support each other,” Whitbourne said.

Whitbourne also believes that keeping freshman away from upperclassmen can actually help keep them out of trouble too.

“The reason the freshman dorm is important is because it isolates the students somewhat from the lures that are out there that might drag them into off-campus parties, which is the big problem,” Whitbourne said.

Ultimately, Professor Halgin believes that choosing the right environment is everything for the freshman.

“It really should be an environment and climate that is responsive to your personality,” Halgin said. “If you want to be in a quiet place where people aren’t abusing substances and there won’t be a lot of partying, request the substance-free dorms.”

From a disciplinary standpoint, experts and students agree that there are both pros and cons to having freshman-only housing.

Viles pointed out that, “there are two sides to freshman dorms. On one side it facilitates poor decision making, but also it makes it easier to police them.”

There were 485 alcohol-related arrests and disciplinary referrals at UMass in 2015, including incidents on campus, surrounding areas used by students, on the nearby public property and satellite facilities like the UMass Center at Springfield. This represents a 46.7 percent decrease from 2014.

Halgin attributes this decline to a more proactive attitude from the administration.

“In recent years there has been such a concerted effort on the part of the university administration to be disciplined and to be structured and really to stand in the way of misbehavior before it gets out of hand,” Halgin said.

Halgin believes that lowering the drinking age could help further cut down on problematic behavior amongst freshman.

“There are a lot of university presidents around the country who have been lobbying to get the drinking age lowered to 19… I feel it makes sense,” Halgin said. “Let’s legalize it so that students aren’t sneaking to get intoxicated and then running the risk of driving drunk.”

Viles agreed.

“With the drinking age being 21, people get into more trouble if they feel like they have to hide what’s going on,” Halgin said.

Email Allyson at amorin@umass.edu.

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