ON that August morning, when the new college dormitory was scheduled to open here in the Pilsen section of Chicago, Martha Elena Nieto and her son, Teohua Villalobos, were first to arrive. It was 7 a.m. Move-in time wasn't for several hours -- the dorm director wasn't even there yet -- but Ms. Nieto was anxious to get on with it. She and Teohua hadn't slept the night before, they were so excited. That this dormitory even existed felt like a small miracle, almost as if someone had built it specifically with Teohua and his mother in mind.
It was not for students from any particular college. It was for any commuter student from the South Side who needed a safe, quiet place to eat, sleep and study.
That was Teohua. He and his mother lived in a house with bars on the front door, in Chicago Lawn, one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. More than once, while watching TV, they had heard gunfire and dived to the floor for safety. Teohua, who is 20, is an A student with a bedroom full of books, attending Harold Washington, a community college. His mother feels sure he will be successful if she can just keep him alive long enough to graduate. Last year, traveling home from school at night, she would not let him walk from the bus stop, either picking him up or having him take a taxi.
Exactly one week after he moved into the new dorm, a young man named Darryl Manns was killed on the corner of their street in Chicago Lawn. "He wasn't in a gang, he was just a random kid," said Ms. Nieto. "It was right in front of the computer store where we used to get Teohua's papers printed for school."
The idea is so simple, it is surprising that no one thought of it sooner. College is hard enough when students live on campus and have all the support they need. For commuter students in poor neighborhoods living with their families in cramped quarters, just finding somewhere to do schoolwork can be a challenge.
The new six-story dorm, for 100 students, is called La Casa and was built by the Resurrection Project, a nonprofit organization serving Latino families in the area. Students living in the dorm attend colleges all over the city, including the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia College, DePaul and Loyola as well as two-year schools like Truman and Malcolm X.
Joe Agron, editor in chief of American School and University, a magazine that monitors campus construction, believes La Casa is the first of its kind in the country. "Most dorms are owned and run by colleges, and there are dorms run by private companies for colleges," he said. "But setting up a dorm for students in the community from many colleges -- I've never heard of it."
Accommodations are spacious four-bedroom suites with a shared kitchen and dining area. The cost is $350 to $700 a month, depending on a family's income. Ms. Nieto pays $450 monthly, not including food. A dorm room at the University of Illinois's Chicago campus costs $1,100.
The idea came from the Resurrection Project, founded by a neighborhood activist named Raul Raymundo. Mr. Raymundo grew up in Pilsen and returned after graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota in 1987, starting the organization two years later in a church basement with a $30,000 grant from six area parishes. They began small, concentrating at first on safety issues, like controlling rowdy customers at the many seedy corner bars.
It turned out Mr. Raymundo had a gift for getting what he needed from politicians, much like another Chicago community organizer before him, the legendary Saul Alinsky. In 1991 Mr. Raymundo gathered 1,000 residents from Pilsen, along with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, and invited Mayor Richard Daly to speak. Then, before the large crowd, he asked the mayor to commit $2 million for community housing. The mayor was angry about being sandbagged, but in the end delivered the money, which was used to build 24 units of subsidized housing. When more than 100 families qualified, he held a lottery and arranged for the Cardinal to pick the winners' names, a surefire way of signaling that all was above board.
Since then, the Resurrection Project has developed more than 600 low-income units around Pilsen, created two child-care centers, a health clinic at a local school, youth recreation programs and support services for immigrants. On several projects, including the dorm, they have worked with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which has provided start-up grants and connected them to national philanthropic groups. In two decades, the Project has raised $250 million.
The dorm was financed with an $8.4 million state grant, $600,000 in donations and a $3 million mortgage. With the building not fully ready by the start of the school year, only 20 of 100 beds are occupied this semester.
La Casa is meant to be more than a place to live. There are a variety of student support services, including on-site counseling and tutoring. One common room is filled with computers and printers for general use. There are resident assistants who come from the same neighborhoods as the students, including Omar Michel, who is writing his master's thesis at Loyola University on Latino student development.
For the students, just to have made it this far has taken considerable drive.
Lauren Spearman, a University of Illinois freshman, contributes $400 a month. She earns $8.50 an hour working 18 hours a week as a floor model at Abercrombie & Fitch and does another 10 hours at the campus bowling center. Her father is a teacher, her mother a nurse's assistant. They could not afford university housing.
Megan Galarza, a second-year student at Truman College, has a job three nights a week as a cashier at Au Bon Pain, and contributes $250 toward the $650 rent; her mother pays the rest. Last year, when she lived at home, it was a two-hour commute to school by train and bus. She would leave at 7:30 and many nights did not return until midnight. This year, she can ride her bike to campus. This year, she can ride her bike to campus. "When Megan wants something, Megan will find a way to get it," said her mother, Duvina, a manager for United Airlines.
Ms. Nieto has high hopes for Teohua, a psychology major who will graduate this year. When he was living with his mother, crime was such a worry that he spent much of his time indoors. Most of his old school friends had moved away; pretty much anyone who can, gets out of Chicago Lawn.
"It's like a whole other city he's living in now," his mother said. Once a week, she stops by the dorm to drop off groceries but doesn't go in. She doesn't want to intrude. She is a 43-year-old single mother and he is her only child. She pays for the dorm out of her earnings as an assistant at a beauty salon; her brother helps them.
Ms. Nieto went to a trade school to study skin care. Last summer, when they were visiting friends in New York City, her son asked to visit Columbia University.
"You want to see his bedroom?" she asked me. "It's very interesting."
There may be no other like it in Chicago Lawn. On the bookshelf are Don DeLillo novels and a copy of James Joyce's "Ulysses." There are also several quotations her son had written out in longhand and taped to the walls. One, from Nietzsche, reads: "The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."
Ms. Nieto waited for me to read to the end, then said, "That's something, isn't it?"
Michael Winerip oversees the Booming blog for The Times.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.