Kalina Black ’07 remembers walking into Ujamaa Residential College three years ago as a freshman and feeling embraced by a program house full of multicultural students.
“I was immediately welcomed by people I didn’t know, by both upperclassmen and first-year students,” she said. “It was a refreshing experience for me, so I knew I wanted to live there sophomore year.”
Now, after serving as an Ujamaa resident advisor for two years, Black is not sure if incoming freshmen who live on North Campus next fall will get such a diverse reception, with Ujamaa and other program houses still struggling to fill room slots.
Only 40 returning students had signed a housing contract for Ujamaa and participated in room selections as of two weeks ago. According to Black, there are 140 room slots, 30 of which remain open for incoming first-year students. This leaves Ujamaa at only half of its maximum occupancy even after the house extended its application deadline twice, she said.
Ujamaa is not the only program oriented residence hall experiencing a decline in applications. Tarae Howell ’07, who works with Campus Life, said all program houses had to extend their application deadlines this year.
“Risley has had a drought, too,” said Davon Smalls ’08. “Though we’ve met our number of 75 percent for returning student applicants, we usually have a waitlist that is 50 to 80 people long. It’s not just Ujamaa. It’s Risley, and Akwe:kon and everyone is basically in the hole.”
Residence Hall Director of the Latino Living Center (LLC) Jean-Pierre Laurenceau-Medina said the LLC reached its cap for next year as well, but not by much. The LLC set its number of returning students at 41 out of 57 spots. The rest are reserved for freshmen.
“We’re still in process of receiving applications for next year but we’re at 34 or 35 upperclassmen, so our numbers are okay compared to other program houses that have been having more difficulty,” Medina said.
Critics of program houses may note the decrease in interest as proof that they are dispensable at Cornell. The culture-based residence halls have been especially accused of maintaining racial and ethnic segregation on campus.
“Some people do want to be among a myriad of cultures at Cornell, so they live in other dorms,” Smalls said.
Ernie Jolly ’09 does not believe a dwindling program house applicant pool means students are divesting from people of their race or ethnic background.
“People moving out of Ujamaa may still move with a group of other black students. Many of those moving to West and off-campus are active leaders in the black community,” Jolly said.
Black agrees that a desire for greater diversity is not behind the declining interest in program houses.
“There’s a difference between wanting to live together and being afraid of the outside world. Somehow wanting to be amongst people like you make people perceive us as some kind of monolithic black population, which is not the case,” she said.
Black suggested residential initiatives could be pulling students away from program houses.
“Having attractive places on West now is definitely drawing a lot of attention away from Ujamaa and others,” said Meka Echebiri ’08.
Though he enjoyed his year in Ujamaa, Echebiri plans to move to West Campus in favor of the newer dorms.
“The West Campus Initiative is making a big difference in where everyone is living in upcoming years. Looking at these new buildings: Becker is amazing, Alice Cook is amazing and the new Noyes Recreation Center is amazing,” Smalls said. “All of this is competing with older program houses, which are less aesthetically pleasing and farther away from Central Campus and Collegetown, where upperclassmen tend to want to be.”
All program houses are on North Campus with first-year students, and this is deterring returning students from staying for longer than their first two years, Echebiri said.
“Students don’t want to live with only a handful of upperclassmen while everyone else is on West or off-campus,” he said. “You can see the turnover in attitude about staying on North. Although it has a lot to offer freshmen, it’s almost uncool after that.”
The residential initiatives coupled with increasing housing rates were enough to convince Ujamaa Resident Advisor Amanda Colon ’08 to live off-campus with her sorority sisters next year.
“If we can save two thousand dollars and still be together, then we’ll do that,” she said.
Colon also believes the University’s efforts to overhaul the West Campus image may have cast a shadow over standing structures that also need support.
“[The University] is building up other places, and that is fine, but don’t forget who you’re leaving behind,” she said.