In Residence

Since last summer, countless daily observers walking near the center of the St. Lawrence campus have taken in the complex stages of building a new residence hall as forms and details change slightly each day. They stop and admire the steep elegance of the stone masonry, the roof pitch complementing the geometry of other buildings, and the windows looking like ink drying on a new page, about to reveal a story.

What exactly do they think we are constructing? Just another building?

In essence, the work being observed during our seasons of construction is not really about the building, in the end, because the building becomes a surrogate for a larger theory of our distinctive kind of education at St. Lawrence. Surely, as architects learn right from the first day in design school, form speaks to function, function to form. The tipping point between these design terms, however, is decided if one follows or dominates the other, thus losing the main point of balance. John Ruskin, one of the first great English critics of art and architecture, puts it simply, “We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well; then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.” 

So, what are we building and what is the theory behind our design? Here is my answer: We are building friendship. That’s it. That’s all. The practical duty of our new residence hall is to create a space for what is arguably the most intense and memorable part of the St. Lawrence experience. While not a measure of a student’s record or good standing, having and being a roommate remains the single-most common and central feature of life at St. Lawrence. No longer is there one course or one book that every student will forever know in a lifelong intellectual solidarity. The days of seniors taking Moral Philosophy from the college president are from a long yesteryear ago. But every student, no exceptions, will share with all other students the power of producing friendships, often starting with the space occupied by roommates.

Most students entering liberal arts colleges today have never shared a room at home, never had a roommate, except for sleepovers or summer camp. This part of the college experience is often tricky ground to cross when students first arrive. And yet, to my utter delight, I hear repeatedly from students at St. Lawrence that they have had the same roommates for more than one year. It is often typical of them to form ritualized common habits, such as sharing dinner together every night at precisely the same time. They become part of each other’s families, connecting with parents and siblings other than their own, absorbing unfamiliar stories and customs.

What do roommates teach other? Naturally, if they are in different majors and live in the same room, there is the added benefit of learning a little something extra in the unfinished conversation of the liberal arts life, more than an individual can learn alone. Despite differences, there is always the unplanned academic cross-pollination in a double or triple. It is a quiet, immeasurable process, but I am convinced it’s present and effective.

The most valuable lessons of the roommate experience are very personal. After all, roommates enter into circumstances that check privacy at the door. Each must risk the intimacy of close quarters, which may exceed the previously shared openness of living with family members back home. The results over time show an increase in emotional awareness and a capacity to discern subtleties in human motives, whether altruistic or manipulative. In this way, students attain critically important life skills, practicing the quality of persuasion and rhetoric on each other, realizing the significance of empathy and thoughtfulness, accepting the tease, enjoying the inside joke, or finding the strength in humbleness.

Put differently, from a wise teacher in the time of my graduate studies, to be fully educated we require “the perpetual suggestion of a saving contrast, because there is not enough difference in our lives to give us that help.” There are some things only a friend, a roommate, can say that will correct a misapprehension or a careless thought. It can happen without a word being spoken. Maybe it’s only by turning down the music or putting the sour socks in the laundry bag.

I had a total of five roommates during my four years at St. Lawrence. One of them died much too soon, and with him the world lost a combined brilliance and caring that I still draw upon, particularly when I walk past our old room on campus. But the rest of us remain in touch, often several times a year. We know a lot about each other and we like what we know. Not long ago, a new student told a staff member that the reason she loves St. Lawrence so much is that she had found her “soulmate school.” We understand what she means. Behind her belief is the transcending commitment of St. Lawrence to be an excellent roommate school. And that’s what and why we are building.