Independents look to enhance community under housing model
Independent houses are attempting to enhance their own sense of community under the new Duke housing model.
Dean of Residential Life Joe Gonzalez noted that indepedent houses have had differing levels of success in terms of fostering community. Housing, Dining and Residential Life and Duke Student Government are considering a number of ways to improve the situation, such as new programming and discussing block sizes.
“It is a young model,” Gonzalez said. “We have independent houses that are thriving and others that don’t have a lot going on just yet. But our hope is that the number of strong houses grows each year.”
Gonzalez said the current model is more equitable than the previous one, adding that one of its core tenets is giving independent houses the same opportunities as selective living groups.
In 2012, the University instituted a new housing model on West and Central Campus that formalized independent sections and retained selective living groups. The new housing model increased the number of residential houses and gave all nine sororities housing on Central. Additionally, five fraternities were moved to Central as part of the new housing model.
Gonzalez noted one particular adjustment that enforces this concept—the extension of the “right of return” policy to all students living on campus. This policy allows students who joined a house the previous year to stay in that house following their semester studying abroad. Under the previous model, the policy was granted to SLGs but excluded independents.
Gonzalez added that it is impossible, however, for independents to produce the same level of community as SLGS because independents are not part of a collective organization that extends beyond the house. He hopes to foster the growth of houses with strong communities that may be very different from each other.
“It would be hard pressed as independents to have the same level of community as SLGs, “ Gonzalez said. “I do believe that gap can be narrowed, but independents have a different perch to operate from.”
In an effort to narrow this gap, the challenge of block size has been an ongoing discussion. Gonzalez said the possibility of larger block sizes and “superblocks” has its appeal, but is not feasible because they are difficult to manage and distribute. He added that many people felt larger blocks would not foster the desired community environment and that resorting to smaller block sizes would enable a greater likelihood for a stronger community.
Independent houses are currently taking other steps such as creating house names and signs in order to develop stronger identities. HDRL continues to develop programs that focus on giving house council presidents the opportunity to engage with each other but also further their own leadership skills.
“Houses with strong leadership create stronger experiences and we are always on the lookout for resources to facilitate those experiences,” Gonzalez said. “It is the community itself, however, that decides whether or not a house becomes a special place.”
Junior Jacob Zionce, vice president for residential life, said strong leadership is vital for the creation of strong independent communities.
“We can give the houses the opportunities for that leadership to flourish, but we can’t create their success ourselves,” Zionce said.
Unlike Gonzalez, Zionce said he advocates for an increase in block size in order to foster a more vibrant independent community. DSG is also looking toward other methods, however—such as the creation of an independent-student managed fund that would allow independent students to improve aspects of house living without pulling money from house activity funds.
DSG has also proposed the idea of an independent housing website in order to give the independent community a sense of identity and expand their branding. In addition, they are reviewing the house selection process to make sure it is logical and simple.
“We are committed to making unique communities and making independent houses flourish, “ Zionce said. “But it was not going to happen within two years—it was unrealistic.”
Junior Cat Blebea, house council president of the independent house Griffin, located in Crowell, advocated for the creation of more shared experiences as the key to building community. She added that the FINvite program—a system in which Duke covers the costs of a group event if a living group invites a faculty member to attend—has enabled independent housing to overcome some aspects of limited funding.
Blebea proposed that simplifying the general process of funding events would improve the overall situation for independent houses. Although many SLGs have corporate cards and bank accounts to access and monitor their funds, independent houses are restricted to a Duke P-card which cannot leave the UCAE office and severely limits certain purchases.
“Overall, I believe removing some of these limitations on funding could help independent houses easily plan events and increase their sense of community,” Blebia wrote in an email Tuesday.