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Northwestern unveils framework to transform residential experience

New proposal recommends organizing undergraduate living into ‘Neighborhoods’ to foster community

EVANSTON - Northwestern University unveiled a framework today (Jan. 18) for a new residential experience for its undergraduate students. The proposed new approach is designed to help students thrive by creating distinct, robust “Neighborhoods” with access to common facilities, support structures and programs.

The proposal provides recommendations on building community for students, expanding the bonding experience that starts their first week with Wildcat Welcome and ensuring an inclusive, engaging and universal residential experience in the years that follow.

The innovative framework, outlined in a report by the Undergraduate Residential Experience Committee, was released today by Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin and Provost Jonathan Holloway.

"We want to get input from the campus community in the coming months to help us finalize the plan."

The goal of the recommended framework is to preserve the traditions many students have come to define as synonymous with their residential experience, while building on community connections and helping students thrive in new, distinct and robust “Neighborhoods” across the Evanston campus. The University community now will have the opportunity to comment further on the proposals in the plan.

“Northwestern is committed to providing a student experience that both reflects and enhances the excellence of our academic mission. The framework is a living document, and we will shape it over time by listening to you. We want to get input from the campus community in the coming months to help us finalize the plan,” Holloway said.

“Our goal is to enhance the residential experience so that every Northwestern undergraduate student has a meaningful, supportive and enriching experience during their time living on campus,” Telles-Irvin said.

The report was informed by surveys and town halls in which students voiced their opinions on how they wanted their residential experience to evolve at Northwestern. It follows several strategic initiatives already underway, including the Housing Master Plan that will run through 2025 and the implementation of the new two-year residency requirement for students that began last fall.

Some of the changes already can be seen. The University celebrated the opening of a new residence hall at 560 Lincoln Street last fall featuring stunning lakefront views, cooking pantries on each floor, double-height lounges, spaces that allow for informal gatherings and spaces where academic courses are offered to residents of the Neighborhood. 

This month, Northwestern opened a newly renovated Willard Hall, which includes the second Engagement Center supporting the Southwest Neighborhood, air conditioning and new furniture in sleeping rooms, lounges, classrooms, newly remodeled bathrooms, a fitness room in the lower level and a laundry room on each floor, and a redesigned Fran’s Café with full menu service and snacks. 

In addition, a Faculty-in-Residence apartment has been integrated into Willard. Northwestern’s fifth Faculty-in-Residence will be appointed to start a three-year term beginning in September. The new position represents a step toward a goal of ten Faculty-in-Residence apartments spread across the anticipated five Neighborhoods.

Northwestern also has launched a comprehensive review of its food service offerings to enhance dining on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses.


Students gather in a lounge at 560 Lincoln. Photo by Jim Prisching

Building community, engagement and inclusion

Feedback on the new framework plan will be collected at sponsored town hall meetings, or comments may also be sent to This winter, the committee and working groups across a wide range of University life, academics and operations will consider the feedback and other suggestions on the proposed residential model. More information on the working groups will be available to the University community in the near future.

“We are emphasizing universality and community of experience, and we are doing this by creating a Neighborhood experience,” explained Paul Riel, co-chair of the committee and assistant vice president for residential and dining services at Northwestern.

“We plan to create consistency in the residential experience across Neighborhoods,” Riel added, explaining each one would have similar spaces and services available to all, equally, including “dining halls, classrooms, game lounges, multifunctional spaces, fitness rooms and a focus on student wellness.”

The heart of the proposal is the “single residential model” in which:

  • The campus would be organized into new “Neighborhoods” in which students living on campus would have access to common facilities, programming and support, including a network of care and wellness assistance and two Faculty-in-Residence.
  • Since the population of each Neighborhood could range from 700-to-1,100 students, new “Houses” would be created, as well--at a much smaller level, perhaps 75-to-170 students--to give students a sense of home.
  • The University will be very intentional about breaking down barriers to diversity and managing the Neighborhood level to ensure equity of opportunity in everything from attendance at outings in Chicago to academic support.
  • The Houses would provide more latitude for experimentation and student ownership, giving individuals the freedom to take their own Northwestern direction and paths within the community and choose their own activities and pursuits.
  • The University envisions five clusters of undergraduate residences, and each of these five Neighborhoods is expected to develop its own identity, symbols and traditions

Northwestern also will seek to develop community by allowing some programs to happen organically. The University will create conditions, structures and spaces that contribute to a sense of belonging and that enable students to develop their own groups.

“Apart from the week of Wildcat Welcome, the two-year residential experience will be the only universal undergraduate experience,” said Brad Zakarin, director of the Office of Residential Academic Initiatives and a member of the committee. “Living on campus will become a signature student experience and build institutional affinity.”

Being responsive to evolving student needs

A core principle of this approach is Northwestern’s effort to be responsive to evolving student needs. By including in the Neighborhoods elements of the University’s broader support structure—such as academic support, residential instruction and emotional wellbeing care—students may perceive and appreciate the whole University better and not just the parts.

“This comes back to navigability,” Zakarin said. “We’re providing spaces so University offices can do some of their work residentially and make students feel supported.” Other suggested unifying, common features will include an operations desk, a mailroom and an intra-campus shuttle stop at each Neighborhood.

There will also be an emphasis in each of having a Faculty-in-Residence apartment in which students can interact informally with a live-in faculty member and invited guests.

The committee concluded that it is a mutually powerful bonding experience for students and faculty to live in the same buildings, eat in the same dining halls and engage in non-evaluative contexts—affording them the opportunity to build relationships through shared interests and experiences.

Beyond that, the proposed framework responds to concerns expressed by some students over the years that they felt isolated from the wider community. The proposed residential experience is designed to enable and encourage students to engage more fully in their communities by helping eliminate all barriers to full participation--especially financial ones.

Zakarin said that the committee, the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of the Provost wanted to encourage “learning across difference, which requires spaces that are safe and comfortable. Fundamentally, we’re talking about spaces in which students can make mistakes and can learn with--and from--their peers.”

Academic links will help build community

Academic linkages would occur in many different ways in residential Neighborhoods, not just through classes and tutoring. The committee concluded that academic linkages will actually contribute to students’ sense of community. The proposed residential model aims to integrate students’ academic, social and co-curricular experiences in mutually-enriching ways.

“Students have expressed great enthusiasm about the opportunity to engage in a wonderful array of activities with their neighbors as new community spaces have come on line in residences like Shepard and 560 Lincoln,” said Ronald Braeutigam, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and co-chair of the committee.

“They are taking advantage of the rapidly increasing number of courses, discussion sections and peer-led study groups offered residentially, and they are excited by the potential for collaboration on curricular projects and participation in co-curricular activities made possible with the enhanced programmatic facilities. Many of our faculty are also eager to bring what they do in the classroom into residential spaces.”

By offering the new residential experience, Northwestern would take a leadership role in a prominent theme in higher education scholarship, the notion of partnership and the value of forging new and stronger collaborations between units in academic affairs and student affairs.

As the Housing Master Plan introduces new buildings and physical spaces on campus, the single residential model would be a new nexus for partnerships and collaborations to support students more comprehensively as they develop personally and intellectually into more independent and responsible adults. In the process, it may better equip them to engage with others, with their communities and with the world.

“Right now, students can build community in their buildings, but beyond those boundaries, there’s only the sprawling campus-wide community,” noted Telles-Irvin. “Neighborhoods will offer an intermediate layer. Students will see friendly, familiar faces in their daily routines. At the same time, they’ll continue meeting new people in the many spaces that will be common to all residents of a Neighborhood.”

Undergraduate Residential Experience Committee

The Undergraduate Residential Experience Committee is a collaborative endeavor of the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of the Provost, co-chaired by Paul Riel, Assistant Vice President for Residential & Dining Services, and Ron Braeutigam, the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education. Twenty-one additional committee members plus a committee staffer were drawn from faculty, staff, community stakeholders and undergraduate students representing a wide range of offices and organizations around campus.  A full committee roster can be found in the appendix of the report.

The Committee was convened on Thursday, January 28, 2016, and the full Committee met 13 times during a 15-month period. Early meetings focused on reviewing Northwestern’s institutional history and, especially, past University reports relevant to undergraduates’ academic and residential experiences. The Committee also examined residential models at other institutions, considering elements and features that might be adapted to meet Northwestern’s own goals and needs.  A variety of documents and handbooks were examined, and detailed phone interviews were conducted with faculty and staff.