A place to call home

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A Ryerson tour guide dressed in a red windbreaker walks the brick path outside Eric Palin Hall towards Gerrard Street. Following her are two dozen high-school students and their parents, who are keen to see what Ryerson has to offer. Across the street are two offcampus housing options for Toronto students, she says, pointing to Campus Common and Neil-Wyick.

“The campus life looks very thin,” says Marc Guimont, a parent looking at Ryerson with his daughter, Andrea, from Kingston, Ont. A few years ago his son applied to Ryerson but didn’t come to the university because he was worried about landing a spot in residence. Guimont is willing to reconsider the school because Andrea’s program of choice — graphic communications management — is unique to Ryerson, but he still has doubts.

“I haven’t told her this yet,” he says, glancing at Andrea. “But if she doesn’t get into residence I don’t know if she’ll be coming here.”

His worries extend beyond Andrea getting a spot, to the feel of the commuter campus and what the rest of the students’ lives are like.

“They wouldn’t really live a campus experience because they’d always be waiting for the bus,” he says.

Olivia Vidal lives the experience Guimont worries about. To get to Ryerson, Vidal takes the bus to the Oakville GO station and then takes a train to Union. Commuting for over an hour every day has left her feeling frustrated and struggling to find time to work and be part of extra-curricular activities at Ryerson.

“You definitely have a lot more people not leading the same lives as everyone else,” says Vidal.

There is a divide between the lives of the many students who have to rush home everyday and those who have the convenience of living near campus. In March, President Sheldon Levy announced that the school had decided to get serious about building more residence buildings for the school’s growing population.

“It should’ve been dealt with a long time ago,” said Levy. “That was one of the strategies that we just haven’t moved on.”

Ryerson released its Master Plan in 2008 and made it a priority to increase Ryerson housing spots within 20 minutes of the campus. Levy realized that Ryerson can’t afford to hold off on much-needed student space. But without the money to build a residence on its own, the university has been forced to turn to the private sphere. While there will still be a clear majority of students commuting, asking developers to find space for 2,000 more students could bring the spirit that’s been lacking on campus.

But building a community involves more than increasing the number of beds. If Ryerson isn’t careful, the money and effort put into a private partnership could end up with thousands of students living together but disconnected.

Traditional universities were founded on four institutions: the academic hall, the dining room, the library and the residence halls. One without the other makes for an incomplete school experience, says Ivan Joseph, Ryerson’s athletic director.

“We’re missing a piece of that here,” he says.

Ryerson is missing more than one piece. It’s hard enough keeping students on campus when the majority live elsewhere, and competing with downtown food and entertainment establishments makes it nearly impossible. But the university has a solid grasp on its academic identity, says Joseph: teaching students with hands-on programs. And Ryerson is making sure the world knows it. By slapping logos on its buildings the university has made the brand visible from as far as Bay and College streets. While this has helped develop Ryerson’s image, the focus on outside perception ignores student identity and unifying students within the school.

“When undertaking initiatives like evolving from a commuter to a more residential school it’s important to understand the essence of the organization,” says Rex Whisman, the founder of BrandED, a university-branding consultancy. “Most have limited their view to logos, taglines and advertising. I define branding as the process of aligning the internal culture with the external repuation.”

Community-focused housing could establish that internal culture, but first the school needs to make the space for it. In the last 10 years, Ryerson’s population grew from 13,000 to 28,000 students. Right now the university accepts less than 850 students into residence every year, while up to 450 are left on the waiting list. Students who want to live downtown but have been denied resident spots can be found living in privatelyrun student housing such as Neil-Wyick, Campus Common, or the Primrose Hotel. Others live in condos or nearby apartment buildings.

“We have a number of our students stashed all over the place,” said housing manager Chad Nuttall. “We put hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people through our tours and when it comes down to it many will never get into residence and they don’t realize that.”

This leaves Ryerson with wildly different student experiences, which is a problem, says Nuttall. “That’s the biggest part about creating identity,” he says. “The shared experience.” Joseph feels the absence of this shared experience in the school’s athletics, where varsity games regularly see low turnouts and a lack of interest in intramural sports. “The problem of being a commuter campus is it’s hard to keep people here or bring people back,” Joseph says.

He says at other universities, students may attend games because they stumble across them. At Ryerson, most students aren’t around enough to unintentionally become involved. The majority of attendants at games are from residence.

Residence students also play a major role at events meant to boost school spirit. During orientation week, residence is called on more than usual to fill the spirit void. But last August, Ryerson failed to break a Guinness World Record for the largest air guitar ensemble. Unlike years before, few residence students showed up to the annual record break attempt. Students not wanting to be on campus stops Ryerson from attaining the ultimate pieces of reputation — pride and spirit.

“We’re a major force in those events,” says Nuttall. “It’s difficult ficult to get commuter students to go to things like that.”

Ryerson isn’t the only university battling commuter student apathy and lacking residences. In Montreal, Que., Concordia University is trying to polish its reputation, partially by adding residence beds. But where Ryerson is drastically expanding, Concordia is easing into the university’s face lift.

“We come from a tradition with very little or no student residences effectively,” says Michael Di Grappa, Concordia’s vice-president services. “So we don’t want to go from that to 3,000 beds overnight. We want to gradually increase that number.”

Sheer cost and infrastructure demands have limited Concordia’s growth. The school went from offering 150 resident spots to 500 for a student population of 44,000. Concordia’s latest goal is to increase the university’s residence offerings by 300. Meanwhile, Ryerson wants to almost triple its space.

Concordia is dealing with the commuter issue in other ways. The university, which faces a lack of space similar to Ryerson’s, has put engineering, computer science and visual arts departments within a new building. Housing drastically different programs together is an attempt to break down barriers between programs while remaining a commuter campus. Other projects, like extending hours of student services and considering campus dropin daycares, are an effort to extend the campus to non-resident students.

“People don’t go to a university because of buildings,” says Di Grappa, “but certainly facilities help create the environment.”

Ryerson is going full force with its private residence plans, with a request for proposal to the private sphere expected to be released soon. But not everyone at Ryerson is confident about turning to the private sector for this project.

“What we have here is a community,” said Nuttall, pointing to the ceiling of his Pitman Hall office, where above him are 12 residence floors housing students, each with its own residence advisor. “And just providing beds doesn’t create a community.”

The type of deal Ryerson could make with a corporation is still unknown. The partnership of universities with businesses to build residences has happened elsewhere, but it’s still new practice so there are few, if any, precedents for Ryerson to look at.

Another relatively new institution dealing with its commuter status is Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia. Like Ryerson, SFU needs to reach out to the private sector to develop more student residences.

“As with any institution, there’s the tension between those goals and having the resources available to be able to develop them, ” said Jan Flagel, SFU’s director of residence and housing.

Although it may not be ideal to go outside of the university for housing development, Flagel is aware of the university’s limits. “I know enough about financing to know that it is the only way new buildings are going to be built,” she said. “The university simply doesn’t have the resources.”

At SFU, the university administration has committed to private residences being staffed with housing employees from SFU. While using university staff is an added financial cost for the university, the costs of using private staff could be much higher. Meanwhile, Levy says the university doesn’t have an option for residences without the private sector. But Levy won’t commit to what kind of partnership he might strike up.

Campus Living Centres is one of the leading private residence companies in Canada. It owns and manages 4,000 beds in student housing across the country, many for colleges. The deals the company makes with institutions vary significantly, with a potential spectrum ranging between little to no university involvement, as with Campus Common, or heavy involvement, where the school would have paid staff in the building and determine the admissions requirements and fees.

Unlike SFU, Ryerson might not have any of its own staff in the buildings that could hold up to 2,000 students. Ryerson’s original reason for turning to the private sector to form a partnership — a lack of money — might stop Ryerson employees from running a private residence. By involving the private sector, Levy thinks decisions won’t be Ryerson’s to make. “If the private sector wants to build a residence, what right does the university have to do anything?” Levy said, pointing from his office to the red and orange Campus Common building on Gerrard Street. “I have no right to do anything in that building, I have no ownership over it.”

He said if the university tried to build more residence spaces by itself, students would end up paying for the development through the fees charged by the university, which would have to make up the difference of the investment. The provincial government, which provides some university funding, doesn’t typically extend its funding to residence. This leaves Ryerson worried about money.

“It might make residence out of reach,” he said, adding that guaranteeing support like Ryerson residence staff isn’t worth waiting on the residence project. But without Ryerson staff, new residences might fail to be much more than buildings.

What Ryerson is missing is a community that unites students throughout the university. More Ryerson residence spaces are a chance to create that community. A purely private residence would work like any apartment building; a landlord wouldn’t round up his or her residents and ask them to attend a Rams game or orientation event.

While the university focuses on trying to acquire all the pieces it needs to create a stellar reputation, community has been forgotten. Millions of dollars are being spent on the Student Learning Centre and the athletic facility within Maple Leaf Gardens, with both projects trying to find a space for commuter students to spend time.

But the university needs to invest more in places to live and making sure those places create connections between students and their school, ultimately uniting Ryerson.

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