UDC opens its first student housing with an eye to a livelier campus

Hundreds of thousands of students return to classrooms across the D.C. area.
By Jenna Johnson
Monday, August 30, 2010

The University of the District of Columbia fall semester began last week, and that meant first-day-of-class prepping in the college's first-ever dorm.

In one apartment, four women rushed to get ready, their nerves soothed by the voice of British singer Sade. In another, a sophomore overslept and barely made it to class on time.

"I don't know what happened to my alarm," said Mazaratti White, 22, a mass-media major who just transferred from the University of Texas at San Antonio. "It's good I was close. I got there in three minutes flat."

Residence halls have been an iconic part of higher education for generations, but UDC has been strictly a commuter campus. Students from the Washington area often live at home or with relatives, and those who move here have had to find a place to rent, usually far from the campus in Northwest Washington near the Van Ness Metro station.

"Dorm" is a loose term for the new UDC housing, which is actually about two dozen two-bedroom apartments in a large complex across the street from campus. But there are three resident assistants, roommate agreements, hall rules, organized icebreakers, social committees and plans for a decoration competition next month.

"No pink accent walls!" Manuel McGriff, residence life director, jokingly warned two roommates who were brainstorming ideas. "No painting. Absolutely no painting."

About 90 students pay about $4,200 a semester to live there. Some are athletes, who have always been housed together off campus, and the group also includes students from UDC's community college near Union Station that opened last year.

By 2012, the college hopes to open a true, dedicated residence hall on the main campus that could house as many as 300 students. There are also plans for a $40 million student center to open in 2012, and this summer UDC started a campus beautification project to turn concrete expanses into green spaces.

UDC President Allen L. Sessoms said it's all part of a grand plan to create a sanctuary where students can focus on their academic careers, feel safe and get more involved with extracurricular activities. He hopes more student engagement will lead to greater student retention and boost the college's single-digit graduation rate, which is one of the lowest in the country. (UDC's six-year graduation rate is 7.9 percent.)

Plus, a vibrant campus buzzing with students at all hours of the day will make it a more attractive option for those who want the full college experience, he said.

"We, as a public university, have an obligation to provide that," he said. "Plus, it's kind of cool. You can do more of that rah-rah stuff."

Nzingha Raufu, 21, grew up in Northeast Washington, close to the campuses of Catholic and Trinity universities. She graduated from high school in 2008 and started taking community college classes while living at home. But Raufu said she was ready "to get out of my mother's house."

"I've been surrounded by colleges and college students my whole life. I thought it was my turn to do this," said Raufu, who is studying nursing at the community college. "We just get to do our own thing. We have a sense of independence."

Living together also gives students a "sense of camaraderie, a sense of community," said Valerie L. Epps, vice president for student affairs. The university has more than 80 clubs and organizations, but it's difficult for students to participate if they have a long commute to campus, rather than a short walk.

"The more active students can be on campus, the more students you can retain," she said.

It used to take Grace Mulenga, 23, at least an hour to get to school from Laurel, where she lived with relatives. It was difficult scheduling impromptu meetings for clubs or class projects. Now, "you can just walk right across campus and do whatever you want to do," said Mulenga, a senior economics and finance major who is also the student representative on the UDC Board of Trustees.

McGriff, the housing director, said he has received call after call from people who are surprised to see housing offered on the UDC Web site. The university has a waiting list of about 25.

"They are calling and saying, 'Is UDC really offering housing?' " said McGriff, who just moved here from a college in Texas. "They can't believe it."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company