August 14th, 2009
Location. Location. Location. That’s the mantra of the real estate agent, of course, and of the client in search of the perfect setting for the perfect house. It is also the mantra for every graduate student in search of reasonably pleasant, accessible accommodations.
When I was a graduate student, in the Paleolithic age, I lived in a variety of apartments, each one slightly more improved than the next. The best arrangement I ever lucked into was the main floor of an older house, about 15 minutes walking distance from my university office. It had a good backyard for sunbathing and studying, a safe place for storing my bicycle, a grand bay window in the front room overlooking the street and a sunny bedroom. The kitchen was small, cramped, and practically impossible for cooking. Anything more complicated than a tossed salad required days of preparation. But graduate students don’t necessarily cook for themselves or anyone else for that matter, and I was well acquainted with cafeteria and fast food options. I remember that apartment fondly, although it’s probably a lot smaller in reality than it continues to appear in my mind’s eye.
St. John’s is a wonderful town, but I have seen the cost of real estate rise pretty steadily over the past decade or so. It is harder and harder for anyone, let alone students, to find decent affordable housing. Indecent housing is always available in every city. If you team up with a crowd it is possible to find a good-boned old house to rent in St John’s, one in which, one hopes, the living room isn’t sloping down to about a 30-degree angle in the centre and the plumbing actually works. I know many graduate students who are happily living downtown, close to the nightlife scene and coffee shops, and managing to achieve a good quality of life. But one must be patient, especially if one is new to the city and does not yet have a sense of where or how to live.
Memorial needs dedicated graduate student housing. Not every campus in North America has such spaces, but those that do make themselves instantly appealing. US-based schools are well ahead of Canadian ones, but the University of Alberta, as one Canadian example, has long had graduate student — and what we quaintly once called married student — residences. I attended that university for a few years as an undergraduate and I remember thinking that if and when I ever grew up I would love to occupy one of those grad student apartments. They were brightly painted and open, and I imagined that everyone was living in some great communal embrace of scholarly friendship. I was more of a romantic then.
Everyone’s fantasy grad residence should be inspired today by the recent example of Harvard, where architect Kyu Sung Woo was actually commissioned to design a green project. Students who are privileged enough to inhabit one of the suites in this state-of-the-art construction are living better than most of the world’s citizens, of course, but we ought to model our own dreams on Harvard’s progressive accomplishments. As Memorial’s graduate population continues to increase, the demand on adequate living space will intensify on and off campus. Imagine how attractive we would be if we could boast a campus residence that was environmentally and architecturally attractive. I don’t think students necessarily apply to the University of Toronto to live in Graduate House, which is the unadorned name of the architecturally controversial residence of that campus, but that building sure makes a statement in the heart of the downtown of Canada’s largest city. There is something comforting about going to a university that puts graduate student accommodation high on the list of campus priorities.
If you browse campus after campus across the continent you will notice how few of them actually show you any pictures of the residences they are boasting about. Can you imagine buying or even renting a house without having any images to go by? Students should beware of sites without anything to show for them. Something might not be right with the picture you can’t see.
I do believe that Memorial is coming to recognize the importance of accommodating graduate students in every way, but we need to lobby specifically for a vision of housing that dazzles. An appealing alternative to a freshly designed residence would be the purchasing of blocks of houses within short bus route or walking distance of the university. A cluster of such units would comprise an instant community for graduate students, and help define a section of the city as a smart park, so to speak.
These are not impossible dreams. But to make big things happen everyone has to be dreaming at the same time.