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Friday, May 27, 2022

We need the commons system

Any member of the Atwater first-year class can clearly recall move-in day. A group of A-teamers is lined up in front of Allen Hall, wearing a matching set of funky Hawaiian shirts (a homage to their beloved dean, Scott Barnicle). The residential life team introduces you to your own sector of campus, one that feels unique and welcoming.

During my first few months as an Atwater first-year, I quickly began to notice the things that made my commons a special place to live. Our faculty head, Sandra Carletti, encouraged us to study Italian because many of the Atwater first-years were placed in a first-year seminar about Italy. Already, it seemed we had begun the cultural exploration promised by our liberal arts education-- one that would allow us to become more inclusive, responsible global citizens. With Dean Scott Barnicle closely mentoring residential life staff, he was able to play a pivotal role in getting to know students, learning about the ways in which they excelled, and issues that they may have struggled with as they adjusted to life at the college. 

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]The residential life team introduces you to your own sector of campus.[/pullquote]

At Middlebury, I learned that deans were not solely punitive figures, but rather, they genuinely cared about our growth as individuals. That touch of humanity allowed me to realize that my college experience differed from my peers at other institutions. It felt second-nature to wave to the faculty of our commons while crossing the street with a group of friends. We entered college with a brand new sense of family. No matter the situation, our commons coordinator, Debbie Cousino, was always available if we ever needed to run downstairs from our rooms and ask for guidance. This structure was something that I greatly benefited from, and my admiration for how our commons supported students is what encouraged me to apply to be a residential life staff member during my sophomore, junior and now senior years. With changes being made to our commons system - from the removal of commons coordinators to the likelihood of its dissolution - I’d like to express why I think the commons should be here to stay. 

While living in Atwater was never a utopia, things worked well. By the time I was a junior, I rarely entered Atwater dining hall without seeing a familiar face. As members of Atwater, our sense of community is strong. Because of our close proximity to a dining hall, a dean who promotes authenticity above everything else, and a smaller number of students, we have built a support network that I have been proud to be a part of during my time as a residential life staff member. As a senior within Atwater commons, I have witnessed the way incoming first years have benefited from the system. 

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Middlebury should be working to maintain and improve our current commons system.[/pullquote]

During my tenure as a first-year counselor, I could not imagine what I would have done if I was not able to run downstairs to my commons coordinator for advice about everything ranging from purchasing art supplies for a hall activity to navigating a crisis. I do not know if my residents would have willingly met with their dean to receive necessary support if they had not gotten to know him on a surface level beforehand. 

Middlebury should be working to maintain and improve our current commons system. We should not rid ourselves of one of our most defining features. Each commons should have a close association with its own dining hall and commons-related events should be encouraged to connect our different pockets of campus with one another. In recent years, the Intercommons Council has fallen flat due to a lack of funding and lack of support from faculty members who are enthusiastic about reinventing the commons vision. If students across various commons felt as if there was a renewed sense of vibrancy in their residential communities, and perhaps if more of our college’s resources were allocated towards supporting commons development, it is likely that more students would identify strongly with their commons affiliation. The lack of student pride within the commons system stems from years of abandonment -- during which commons-specific and inter-commons events, as well as plans to improve and solidify each community -- have dwindled. While this and several other factors have led to the commons system decline, I do not find any of them convincing enough to dissolve a system that countless people have spent years crafting. It is an act that would vastly change campus culture in a way that feels, quite honestly, like we are losing something special. 

It breaks my heart to envision a Middlebury without the commons system and without the commons that I have called home these past four years. When we lose the commons, we not only lose something that makes us different from a large state school; we lose a layered support system that was crafted with creativity and personality-- one that gave people a sense of immediate community and identity, that lent to friendly competition and a way to connect worlds across a campus where various residential buildings are far from one another. I am lucky to have spent my four years at Middlebury as a member of Atwater commons. It saddens me to know that future students may not be able to enjoy the community and sense of family provided a robust, fully developed commons structure.