University residence in middle age is not for the faint of heart

It’s easy to tell that Labour Day Weekend is upon us and that it’s time for young people to head back to universities and colleges.  Not because of the weather, which remains incredibly summery.  But in college towns such as ours the signs are there.  And our esteemed national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, has noticed.  Yesterday there were four articles about “majoring in student debt” in their business section, followed today by a front page article about universities tackling alcohol excess plus a “lifestyle” article about helicopter parents leaving – or not leaving – their offspring in residences (aka dormitories).  Clearly, these are topics of interest as young people head back to the classroom.

I have some thoughts on student debt that will be the theme of my next post, but first I thought I’d share some observations of my own about the timeless topic of residence life and alcohol.  To put it in perspective, my mother used to regale me with stories of just such things as she reminisced about her time at Cornell in the 1930s.  This particular story is old now – in fact, 21 years old, and my old residence is now co-ed – but, as we know, some things are eternal!

It was August 1991 and I was leaving my driveway in London, Ontario en route to my new apartment in Tibbits Hall at the University of New Brunswick.  Actually, I wasn’t just leaving my driveway; in order to go back to my teaching job at UNB I was leaving behind my husband of 24 years and our younger son, who were staying in our family home.  We were embarking on what was to become a 4-year experiment in long-distance commuting.  This was not a decision that had been made lightly, but it had been made, and here I was driving by myself the 1600 kilometres from London to Fredericton to live with our older son in a 2-bedroom apartment in a residence building with 200 undergraduate women.

Tibbits Hall

To be honest, there was a bit of a thrill to be able to establish a little nest of my own, and everything but the apartment and day-to-day living in residence was very familiar to me, having lived in Fredericton for over 20 years and having taught at UNB for over 10 years at that time.  I was even familiar with Tibbits Hall from a summer program experience.  But … I hadn’t actually lived in residence day in and day out since my own student days, and times were different, as was I.  I had yet to discover just how different.

I had signed on to become the Associate Don at Tibbits, and was anxious to figure out exactly what my duties would be.  My colleague, Carol Jordan, the experienced Don in Tibbits, would fill me in.  I arrived to be met by my roomie, Kevin, our older son, who was about to start his 3rd year.  He had moved into the apartment during the summer while working in Fredericton and had made it his own.  It was a great apartment, with a large living room, large kitchen, and 2 well separated bedrooms.  It was furnished in 1970s institutional-orange hand-me-down furniture, which I quickly upgraded with a trip to Leon’s.  As far as accommodations were concerned, we were all set.  And on top of a large kitchen we also had a cafeteria down the hall, the only part of the arrangement my husband envied.

The duties were another story; I was quickly reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch … or a free cafeteria card.  Ostensibly, Carol and I split our duties between the social side of the house organization (the House Committee worked with Carol) and the operational side (the Hall Proctors and Educational Proctors reported to me), but in fact, like all administrative positions, mostly we dealt with problems.  And orientation week is a really powerful way to be introduced to what kind of problems one might encounter in a women’s residence – or any residence.  The house rules provided an early rude awakening that times had really changed since I was in residence at McGill in the mid-60s.  It turned out that men were allowed in women’s rooms at all times, even in double rooms, which were the majority.  Except during orientation week.  However, Lady Dunn Hall had different rules, even though the two residences were joined by an open corridor with no doors on either side.  Lady Dunn girls could start having overnight guests as soon as they arrived.

Talk about a fascinating study in human behaviour, if in fact one had had the luxury of stepping back and observing from a distance.  During orientation week, the only students in residence were new first year students and the upper year students on various social and orientation committees, plus of course the floor proctors who had a busy week in store keeping a semblance of order on their respective floors.  One of the first things the girls found out was that they could have male visitors overnight now that they were away from home!  I was just glad that parents didn’t understand this when they deposited their sweet young daughters at the doors of an all-female residence.  The next thing they learned was that this wasn’t an option prior to the following week.  Then they discovered that the girls next door, just down the corridor, could have men over right away.  And then it dawned on them that there were going to be roommate problems ahead; when a roommate brought a man home, what would the other roommate do … all night?!  They took this all in the first hour of arriving, and then headed out to meet the new first year guys.

One of the most extraordinary sights I have ever seen was the exterior lobby of Tibbits after the inside doors were locked at 1 or 2 a.m. during that first week.  This small, glass-enclosed space was swarming with more male bodies than one could have imagined could fit within these confines.  They couldn’t have even known the girls inside yet; it was just the first 24 hours they had all been at UNB.  And yet, with the aid of their alcohol-enhanced brains, they instinctively knew there was something of interest in there, and if someone would just unlock the door they could have it.  If you ever questioned the notion that our biological urges are hardwired, this swarming is a sight worth witnessing.  You’ll be convinced.  Miraculously, at some point the young men departed and calm prevailed within the Tibbits walls.  For that night.  I could see we would be walking a fine line between fun and fear.  Oh, it was going to be quite the year.

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