Academiology II: Residency

Published on 2024-02-11

When I was in my first year, I lived on campus. It was... strange. This was during the time people still cared about COVID transmission, so things were quiet. Maybe or maybe not quieter than they otherwise would have been; it's hard to tell. But if nothing else, having a home on the same property as all my classes was incredibly valuable.

Going to an 8 AM class meant waking up at 7:50 AM on the hard days, crawling out of bed, throwing on a shirt and running a few blocks over. Getting breakfast down the road afterwards. Meeting friends on my floor. Going to the many events they put on. All that stuff. All the things that are supposed to make residence a valuable experience.

For me, though, all of that felt like it was being complicated by the fact that I knew, eventually, it would come to an end.

My most memorable experience in university residence was the last day I was allowed to stay in my home. Noon was the deadline for us to be out. My walls were blank, my floor was blank, my desk--recently covered in paper and stationary--was clean. It didn't feel like home anymore. Everything I'd done to make this space mine over the course of an academic year erased in an afternoon.

At noon, the residence advisors went door to door telling people to leave. I hadn't actually seen my residence advisors in months at this point--there had been a number of administrative complications that year that mostly kept them out of our lives. These people were strangers to us, and now they were rather forcibly removing us from the places--despite the broken AC systems, despite the massive windows that might fall off their hinges and crush you if you pull them the wrong way, despite the hilariously loud pipes moving unknown liquids through the walls--that we came to call home.

I didn't actually have anywhere to go after I left. My lease agreement with my new landlord didn't start until the following day, and the residence managers didn't seem to care. That night I slept in a tent.

I spent years feeling bitter about it. It shaped a lot of what I think about the rentier economy today. I certainly wouldn't say I'm at "peace" with it now--when you stay in university residence, the school is your landlord, and you are a tenant with virtually no rights. There are plenty of ways in which that relationship is unhealthy. But recently, in the spirit of coming to a better understanding of the university ecosystem, I think I've eased up on it a bit and I want to take the time to explain why.

In ecology there's a heavy focus on understanding how nutrients move within and through a system. These ideas can apply to people as well, in the larger, metaorganisms we create. Hey, I think I've written about this before!

Biogeochemical girl

Importantly, in a functioning ecosystem, things are always moving. That's what we mean by "dynamic equilibrium," or "steady state." If things appear consistent then that's because the intersecting rates of change create conditions that are stable over time.

Nutrients come in and they go out. Some stay for a while, but never forever. A truly static system is one that's dead.

As such, all nutrients have a "residency time," or the period of time that they stay in a particular reservoir within the ecosystem. Water may stay in your mouth for a while before being swallowed. Energy may stay in the ground for a while before being sent off to the atmosphere as long wave radiation. A fallen tree will rest on the surface before being swallowed by the Earth. Nothing lasts forever.

Similarly, for a time, the university guaranteed all first-year students a place in residence. I was guaranteed a spot. When the academic year expired, I applied again, but this time I was putting my name into a lottery pool. My presence in residence wasn't guaranteed, and when someone else was chosen, I had to leave in search of a new home.

Ultimately, and particularly given the fact that the vast majority of students living in residence were first-years, the program was a service to people settling into a new city. In other words, by the time I had finished my first year, it was no longer for me. New students feed the system in new ways, maintaining its dynamic equilibrium, and I had to move on.

For a number of reasons I won't get into here, I think the university handled this transition very poorly for a lot of reasons. They hurt me as well as many others, and they took a lot of my money in the process. I'm not forgiving them for that--at least, not until it's clear they've done anything to make sure it doesn't happen to others. But I do think I understand why a little better now.

In the following years, the university administration decided it would keep admitting more students as construction of new buildings struggled to keep up. When they admitted more students they could feasibly move into residence, they quietly dropped the first year residence guarantee around a month or two before students were expected to land at the airport. The local housing market ballooned with desperate students looking for a new home in an unfamiliar place. Over the next two years, the system adjusted. People stopped seeking residence on the university's unreliable campus. Recently, they extended the housing application deadline due to a lack of interest--something I never could have imagined when I first arrived.

Finding a new home in this city was really hard. It took me quite a while. But eventually I found one, and I think that I'm much happier here than I was back then.

Eventually I'd like to talk in detail about the relationship between the university and the land. For now, I ought to note that I am not native to this city. For that matter, I'm not native to this country either. I've spent my entire life on stolen land. And to make matters a little worse, my presence in this city is driving prices up and people out of the homes in which they've spent their entire lives. It is, in a way, problematic to assume that you're owed a place wherever it is you choose to be. There's many different forces at play shaping the places we live. Some as benign as leaving for school, and others as malign as the national housing crisis.

But ultimately, these forces aren't exactly larger than life. In fact, I'd say they're about as large as life. As individuals, they may seem insurmountable, but we owe it to each other to work together, to reshape these processes such that everyone has a place to call home.

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