Dorm life v. off-campus living: Both have advantages

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Quick: Name one college movie where the characters throw a massive party in a dormitory.

Can't do it, can you? The Deltas in "Animal House" had the party house, Van Wilder had his bachelor pad, and the boys in "Old School" became a fraternity just to keep their place.

So why would you ever live on campus?

Pump the brakes for a second. Campus living is fantastic. Just do it right. On-campus and off-campus living offer separate, yet equally important benefits.

The best approach is to take advantage of both.

My dorm at the University of Notre Dame was built in 1952 as a temporary building, to be replaced by a newer dorm, and never left. It's a gray cinder-block, L-shaped building, and I lived in the basement of it my freshman year.

Our room had old wooden modular furniture, no sink and no air conditioning. The priest in charge of our dorm had a dog named Ellie. Thing about Ellie was, she smelled like a wet rug that had been left outside to rot for a few months.

The communal kitchen in the basement had been defunct since about 1984; I once had to form-fit a mouth guard for sports and couldn't do it because the stove wouldn't boil water.

We loved it. And we loved Ellie.

I say "we" because I formed some of my closest friendships during that first year in the basement. We embraced the poor condition of the dorm together.

You won't find the proximity the dorm offers anywhere else in the world. Your closest friends live four steps away, and when you're in a new place, potentially far from home, you come to appreciate the tight community a dorm offers.

As you spend more time and become comfortable in the community, the dorm ceases to be a safety net and turns into a living, breathing organism. It has a pulse, moods, feelings, good days and bad days. It's tough to describe, but it's there, and it adds a vibrancy to your life that cannot be replicated. If you skip dorm life, you'll miss something special.

Life in the dorm, however, fell far short of perfect. The rooms were small and claustrophobic. The dorm was single-sex. Resident assistants caught on to our shenanigans. As great as it was, it grew old, so my friends and I moved off campus.

We lived in a house built in 1910 that was converted from an apartment building, a big brick square with eight bedrooms. It was exactly what we needed: no rules, more space, away from campus when classes became too much.

It taught us how to participate in real life because we had to pay rent, bills, cook, clean and take care of ourselves. The latter three fell by the wayside, but the idea was there.

We enjoyed the experience. We liked being able to throw parties for our friends without RAs knocking on our doors. We loved the distance from campus that allowed us to relax after a tough week. Living together brought us closer.

We'd make an effort to do things together, be it as elaborate as planning beer olympics or as simple as watching the Winter Olympics. I'd come home to find my roommates clustered around the TV watching curling with rapt attention, and life stopped because England just put two stones inside the four-foot circle in the seventh end to even the match.

You can make your house or apartment your own. Decorate it how you choose, outfit it for your personal preferences: foosball table, Rock Band room, etc. It's another type of special experience you will regret missing. There's nothing like spending almost all of your time with a few of your closest friends.

The best way to approach the on-campus, off-campus question is to experience both. Live in the dorms your first year. If you like it, stay. I was lucky. I got a great dorm. You may not. If you and your friends hate it, move off. You'll know when the time is right.

But make sure you move off at some point. Besides being a valuable learning experience, a sneak peek at real life, it forges a connection with you and your friends -- those you live with and those you don't -- that lasts forever.

Besides, the Deltas had to be on to something, right?


Bill Brink, who was a summer intern and is a staff writer at the Post-Gazette, graduated this year from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., with a major in history and a minor in journalism. He can be reached at bbrink@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1158.


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