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The Senior Village Success Story the Students’ Perspective

“Living in the senior village has truly felt like living in the real world. Having to maintain a clean apartment, adjusting to the living styles of roommates, and getting to know neighbors has enhanced the Wofford experience. At most universities, upper classmen will live off campus … and this leads to a feeling of disconnect to the rest of the community. The village has the opposite effect. I feel that I have become close to people outside of my friend circle simply by having a commonality of living in the village.”

- Wofford College Senior

Institutions of higher education in America warmly embrace the original tenants of the residential college experience that blends the constituent parts of academic, co-curricular and residential life into a seamless whole. Liberal education aims to integrate students into the fullness of life on campus as a precursor to well-ordered lives in the world. To further this aim, a few notable colleges and universities have carefully planned and developed well-designed “villages” for their senior students that keep them on campus providing leadership as they transition from four years on campus to successful lives in the community.

Let us tell you about our work to design + build a Senior Village integrated into the fabric of four of these inventive colleges + universities: Wofford College (SC), Randolph-Macon College (VA), the University of Richmond (VA), and Elon University (NC). In each case, academic leaders created the atmosphere for apartment-style living that incorporates academic and social spaces often including career path amenities in the mix. And, in each case, these initiatives served to retain senior leadership and presence as a vibrant part of the overall collegiate environment. In this exercise, we sought to uncover the students’ perspective to better understand the senior village success story.

Wofford College

Spartanburg, SC

Campus Context
Site Plan

Wofford is a residential liberal arts college with 1600 students where the village concept has been employed for the expressed purpose of providing “the ultimate in an on campus residential experience, especially for students in their senior year.” Approximately 350 Wofford seniors live in the Village at the edge of campus just a few minutes’ walk from the central green.

Randolph Macon College

Ashland, VA

Site Plan

Like Wofford, Randolph-Macon is a small liberal arts college intent on developing “the mind and the character of its students … to prepare undergraduates for successful lives.” Birdsong Senior Residence Hall accommodates 125 of its seniors in a tightly organized complex of buildings that echoes the distinct campus character and has a unique setting adjoining the end zone of the Fighting Yellow Jackets’ football field.

University of Richmond

Richmond, VA

Campus Context
Site Plan

The University of Richmond fits into the category of a small university with a distinct undergraduate mission “combining a collaborative learning and research environment unlike any other in higher education.” Gateway Village, clustered around a central courtyard, offers up to 175 seniors the chance to remain on campus in order to reap the benefits of this sort of marketplace for ideas. They maintain a clear focus on completing their undergraduate experiences with distinction while their next steps are easily in sight.

Elon University

Elon, NC

Campus Context
Site Plan

Like Richmond, Elon is a small university that maintains a balance between “a dynamic and challenging undergraduate curriculum in the traditional liberal arts and sciences complimented by distinctive professional and graduate programs.” 325 seniors at Elon relish the opportunity to live in the Station at Mill Point where this sort of balance between worlds is ever present, occupying an off-campus neighborhood setting a mere 5-minute walk from the university’s core.

We are deeply interested in the value of our work in the lives of its inhabitants. Although resident satisfaction is not easy to measure, we set out to devise a simple survey that would ask a set of questions about each Village complex itself (spatial issues) as well as the social aspects of the overall Village idea (non-spatial issues). Questions were fashioned to generate both quantitative results (range of satisfaction) as well as qualitative information (personal narratives), and the survey was administered through the housing office of each institution using Survey Monkey software with results delivered directly to the design team.

The process we adopted set out to examine student satisfaction within the context of campus-wide aims. Through the careful design + development of their Senior Village, academic leaders have sought to promote a sense of independence, responsibility, interaction, community, connection, and transition as a capstone to the undergraduate experience. While we were not surprised by the positive nature of the students’ responses, we were certainly pleased by the strength of their conviction that these aims had not only been met but were exceeded in most instances. “Living in the senior village has truly felt like living in the real world” is a common refrain.

We began to view the responses in terms of seven levels of interaction that seem to be identifiable within both the aims and the design of the village concept. Here are the themes that emerged:

The Individual Student

Overwhelmingly, students felt that living in their senior village helped them gain a mature view of their role on campus and their preparation for life in the future. They discussed a maturity of self-sufficiency, self-awareness, self-confidence, self-esteem and self- motivation. Here is the narrative response of a Randolph-Macon student alluding to her sense of independence.

“I have felt less like I’m being treated like a child being watched in a senior apartment, as I have felt sometimes living in a more typical dorm room. There is a strong sense of independence felt living in an apartment with roommates and being able to be more self-sufficient. The environment, in general, is just more comfortable to live in.”

The Dwelling / Apartment

In large part the feeling of "maturing in place" came from common tasks and interactions such as cooking, cleaning, hosting, gathering, studying, and working out differences. As one student from Richmond suggested, it comes down to a perception of luck.

“I am so grateful to have the opportunity to live with 3 of my best friends and close to so many others. As we look forward towards graduation, it is becoming more and more apparent how lucky we are to have each other so close. Living in the same apartment means impromptu dinners together or study sessions or movie nights without having to think; they just happen. In the future, our paths will not just casually cross. It will require great intent and planning.”

The Building

Students expressed a clear sense of identity with their particular building and a feeling of orientation to their place in the Village and surrounding campus in general. They appreciate both the inside and outside characteristics of the architecture. One student from Elon echoed the sentiments of many others by noting the benefits of the upper level porches.

“The community feel within the Station at Mill Pond is fabulous. The porches on the buildings are well loved and well used, especially the top floor porches. … The upper porches are more secluded and feel like they belong to the residents … making them more attractive to add outdoor furniture … .

The Dwelling Group / Neighborhood

Student residents recognize their friends and greet neighbors who they get to know quite well over time. A strong sense of community is fostered simply by walking past the buildings within the complex and by walking through the open spaces they contain. At Wofford, the development pattern evolved over time and the neighborhoods are identified as “phases” that are clearly built in close association with one another.

“Having an apartment that is part of a “phase” [of the overall Village] gives the sense that the phase I live in is its own little neighborhood. I feel a stronger sense of community with the other people who live in my phase. When the college hosts events on the open lawn in my phase, it feels good to help host the other members of the larger community. Because I feel like Phase 3 is my neighborhood, when the rest of the college comes out to my corner of campus for an event, it feels like we are, in some way, hosting them.”

The Village

By examining their responses, we tend to think that students were surprised by the strong feeling of well-being that prevails in a community of their peers, all facing the same pressures of the day and challenges for the future. By setting aside an identifiable place for seniors and upperclassmen, close to the center of campus yet bounded by the surrounding community, the academy has established a recognizable enclave that is an open and inviting meeting ground. An Elon senior puts it this way.

“ I spend a lot of time in the study and lounge spaces in the Depot in our neighborhood. It’s close enough for me to go back and forth to my apartment if needed, but I am still able to be productive in a space that is not my apartment. Spending time in this common space allows me to catch up with people I know walking through. It’s a great multi-purpose space that’s quiet because it is used by upperclassmen who are mature, involved, respectful and busy. I love the feel of the neighborhood and my ability to mix the university community with my personal life.”

The Campus

In response to this line of inquiry, there was an indication of higher than expected campus engagement. In some communities such as Elon’s, students applied for selection, suggesting that more engaged students would be in residence to begin with. One of the Wofford students, quoted in the opening statement, clarified the wide range of activities that add up to a fully immersive senior experience.

“Living in the senior village has truly felt like living in the real world. Having to maintain a clean apartment, adjusting to the living styles of roommates, and getting to know neighbors has enhanced the Wofford experience. At most universities, upper classmen will live off campus … and this leads to a feeling of disconnect to the rest of the community. The village has the opposite effect. I feel that I have become close to people outside of my friend circle simply by having a commonality of living in the village.”

The Community

In several cases, students reflected on alternative living arrangements by mentioning the difference between senior village life and life in a dormitory or an off-campus apartment. Invariably they recognize the privilege of addressing the pressing demands of completing their undergraduate program of study with dignity while, at the same time, anticipating the life that awaits in their community of choice.

“I’m going to miss living in such close proximity with others that are at the same point in life as I am. It has been easy to create a healthy social and academic environment for myself with the freedom [Birdsong] creates.”

Within these themes we would like to cite four general observations that emerge from our study before we go on to offer lessons learned in each of the four institutions.

  1. The most faithful implementations of the Village Housing Model, in terms of density and individual outdoor space for each unit, received the highest satisfaction rates.
  2. High marks were given for robust programming that intentionally targets upperclassmen, speaks to their unique place in life, and respects their relationship to bot the institution and their individual academic experience.
  3. It is vital to have a management style that allows the class to fully occupy, utilize and responsibly “own” the community. Engagement and satisfaction were higher where students were most treated as responsible young adults.
  4. It appears many students taking the survey are well adjusted to and “get” the key design ideas of the community and the interaction they invite. The Village Housing Concept is especially successful in maximizing engagement for these students.

Each of the four institutions has interpreted the Village Housing Concept in ways that are appropriate and complementary to their campus culture, architecture and design principles.

Wofford's Village appears to benefit appreciably for its faithfulness to the complete "Village Housing" model: each and every unit has its own patio and/or balcony, assuring the gradient of public and private spaces are consistently provided. There is also a variety of green spaces and these are provided in relative abundance. Outdoor activities are supported by grills, volleyball and bocce ball courts. Laundry and study rooms are close at hand.

In addition to the design features, an appropriate level of programming is well received for social activities and events. Students in various buildings and groups of buildings are motivated to take their own initiative in planning additional more impromptu events.

The number of negative comments in the several hundred written responses to the survey is almost zero. There are only a few remarks about the tension sensed between being "on-campus" or "off-campus" in this Village.

Birdsong Senior Residence Hall gets high marks for its central courtyard flanking the end-zone of school's football stadium. Campus engagement is guaranteed on game-days and students noted the usefulness of the balconies in bringing residents together every day.

Students noted some dissatisfaction with a number of management prohibitions which they felt hindered their casual engagement with other students, as well as the absence of study rooms. A few students noted dissatisfaction with the disconnection between the north and south wings of the building where the event space occurs, and were interested in greater availability of these common spaces for student use.

At Gateway Village, students were pleased with their proximity to the intramural fields as their community's neighbor and the sense of engagement with the campus that this activity brings. Students appreciated the study rooms and the pathways through the courtyards that help connect the residents both physically and socially.

While the Village is well-received overall, there was some expression of dissatisfaction with the absence of a dedicated outdoor space (porch or balcony) provided for each unit. The use of the outdoor spaces seems limited due to the landscape design and the lack of provision of outdoor furniture, diminishing students’ ratings of the community. Increased access to and availability of the common amenities, such as the event room, were also suggested.

The survey responses for the Station at Mill Point exude an overwhelmingly positive response to the intentional programming for "Life after Elon" that is designed to go with the community. In addition to career services, special events, activities, food trucks, and book clubs (among other things) are provided specifically for the residents. Amenities with the Station are enormously popular, including the Depot (commons spaces), fitness room, swimming pool, volleyball courts and grilling areas.

In contrast to the other communities, The Station is located near the campus, but is, in fact, off-campus. Students noted a greater sense of disconnection with the main campus, particularly as it regarded returning to campus after "coming home for the day." More than a few students seemed disappointed with this small level of disconnection, yet it did not diminish their overall satisfaction with the rich experience provided to them in the senior village.

Next Steps?

American colleges and universities are vitally interested in the careful choreography of the undergraduate experience leading to a full and well-balanced life. This is true for the large research-oriented university, the small liberal arts college, and institutions of all dimensions in between. Our modest study of student satisfaction leads us to believe in the value of the Senior Village Concept as part of a well-conceived capstone experience for graduating seniors at the colleges and universities where we’ve designed for and implemented this inventive idea.

We now realize that this creative design concept embodies the mission, vision and core values of these learning communities by blending residential life into the curricular and co-curricular vitality of the campus as a whole. For a majority of graduating students, the Senior Village proves to be an excellent bridge between the academy and the marketplace.

Study Team Credits:

McMillan Pazdan Smith: Ron Smith, John Jacques, Travis McConkey, and Karen Calhoun

BCWH: Charles Piper and Charles Tilley