A Student Housing Insider Becomes a Customer

by Katie Sloan

Impressions of move-in day as a first child goes off to college.

Ron van der VeenLast month, I said goodbye to my first son going off to college. On top of the tears, the memories, the fright that he doesn’t really know how to live on his own, I finally got to experience student housing from a “buyer’s” standpoint.

I have an intimate history with student housing. I spent five years in the dormitories at the University of Oregon before becoming an architect who has specialized in student housing for the past two decades. I’ve worked on campuses around the country and just about every type of student housing design one can imagine. But there is something different about finally getting to be the client. Sure, my son is the one actually living in his new environment but I am paying for most of it and was active in his housing choices. (I actually designed a project on his campus that didn’t make his first choice!)

Until the time we arrived on campus, it never really occurred to me how important first impressions were to make students and parents feel welcome and safe. We actually entered from the “back” of our son’s new housing complex and met up with numerous families lost and confused about what to do next. All of the official campus guides and move-in helpers were at the front of the building. In the confusion, we unpacked the car and then packed it back up twice. At the same time, my son started walking around the building trying to find out how to start the check-in process. Still no campus help. He finally saw a long line and decided to get in it, and this eventually led to key distribution.

In the meantime, my wife and I started driving around until we found a student housing representative. That is when our experience began to improve. We were put on a call list and given directions about where to drop off our son’s boxes. There, we were met by an army of cheerful student movers more than eager to get his stuff up to his sixth-floor dorm room. This was all done very efficiently without the use of the elevators. I can’t imagine how tired they must have been by the end of the day. Even with this experience, I was hoping for a bit more hospitality from the dorm complex: maybe a cup of coffee and refreshments after the long haul, a place to grab a school T-shirt or car sticker, a meet-and-greet from the RA’s — something to say we appreciate the big check you just wrote us.

After delivering my son’s belongings, his roommate soon arrived and the unpacking began. The biggest hurdle in getting the room in van der Veen, far right, spent five years in the dorms at the University of Oregon. order was constructing the loft beds. This was made tougher by the lack of tools available at the front desk. Our wait was at least an hour. It would have been easy to have gone to the nearest hardware store and bought 20 more for less than $50.

In one last gesture of benevolence to my son, we took several of his friends out to lunch nearby the campus. Wouldn’t it have been great if we were all offered a lunch in the cafeteria before heading home so we could get an idea of the food choices he could expect?

Now, I consider myself the anti “helicopter” parent, but again, I was hoping for some point of contact with a student-housing representative to assure me my son would survive without his mom and dad.

Well, despite the awkward start to his college life, he seems to being doing quite well, as evidenced by the lack of communication to his parents this last month. He hasn’t even asked for money!

When I was first unloading my boxes freshman year at the University of Oregon in 1976 the student housing experience was no-frills. It was a “take-it-or-leave-it” situation. We all know how different the experience is today. The high cost of my son’s education has made me much more keenly aware of the value of his living experience. I want to get my money’s worth. And those first impressions on move-in day say a lot to me about what I am paying for.

— Ron van der Veen, AIA, LEED AP, is the design leader for the Seattle office of DLR Group and leads the Student Housing Center of Excellence for the company. DLR Group is a national integrated design firm of architects, engineers, planners and interior designers. dlrgroup.com



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