Meet the Suite

I knock on the bland, beige door of a 9th floor suite. A smiling face greets me at the door and invites me inside. The sound of laughter and music fills the small hallway- all the doors of the rooms in the suite have been left open, creating a welcoming and friendly environment. The girls all walk in and out of the rooms, talking to each other and consulting one another about outfits. The girls are obviously close- they banter with each other the way that only best friends can. Their frienNuns Having Fun?dship is so strong it is almost palpable.

Almost every single dorm on the South Campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a suite-style dorm. In buildings such as Hinton James (also affectionately known as HoJo) eight students of the same gender live in a four-bedroom suite and share a common hallway and bathroom. The suites are connected by an outside concrete walkway. Besides outside seasonal decorations such as pumpkins or small plants, there is no evident signs of life in these outdoor hallways. Life flourishes inside the suites, where the students grow and change throughout their freshman year. Suite-style dorms are a cultural abnormality- they somehow promote individuality and sociability at the same time. This topic intrigued me so greatly that I conducted an ethnography on a suite of girls on the 9th floor of HoJo. I decided to study the unique space and try to understand the complex relationship that community has with suite-style dorms. Suite-style dorms cultivate community because they increase individuality, affect sociability, and encourage strong friendships.

Methodsthumbnail_img_4571

For this study, I conducted two different observations on this particular suite. I am friends with the girls in this suite, so it did not seem suspicious for me to spend time in their suite and do work on my laptop. For my interviews, I had to admit that I had been studying them. Although I was initially afraid of their reactions, they were thrilled and felt honored that I thought they were interesting enough to study. There is a slight chance that the responses of the 6 girls I interviewed may have been skewed because of our personal relationship. To keep anonymity in the interview, I sent each of the girls a survey on Qualtrics with all my interview questions. This ensured that their responses were still anonymous, despite our personal relationship. I also took pictures of the suite inconspicuously.

 

Individuality

One of the most compelling things that I studied in the suite was the girls’ emphasis on their individuality. In my observations, I noticed that each of the girls tried to differentiate themselves in various ways in order to make themselves stand out. I became aware of this in my first observation when I noted that there were two groups of girls in the suite- those who liked partying, and those who did not. This obvious divide between the girls was an example of how they This suitemate showcases her individuality by displaying her artwork.strived to be different from one another. One of the girls even replied to one of the interview questions with a topic of individuality, asserting that “it’s sometimes hard to define yourself when you are around too many people”[i](personal communications, November 2016). This admittance showcases just how essential it is to distinguish yourself when you live with eight other girls all battling for the spotlight.

The girls also show their individuality by decorating certain parts of the suite. As shown above, this suite member decorates her side of the room with personal artwork as well pictures of mountains. This wall decoration helps showcase this particular girl’s individuality, and shows that her artistic style and creativity is important to her. The girls also express themselves in the suite with the pyramid of nun and kitten pictures (see figure 1), as well as the printed, colorful shower curtains. In a traditional hall-style dorm, residents would not be able to decorate the bathrooms or adorn the hallways with pictures.           

Sociability

Suite-style dorms encourage sociability because when you live with 8 people, it is difficult to avoid being social. Many of the girls in the study stated that before college, they would not consider themselves particularly social people- but now that they are in college, they feel the need to be more social because of the people they are surrounded by (personal communications, November 2016). In general, it is just easier to be social in suite-style dorms: “corridor-based housing does not have the kind of readymade spatial organization that suites provide; because of this, residents of corridor-based housing may have a harder time forming social groups within the dorm” (Devlin et al., 2008). This concept of ready-made special organization is important- often the physical layout of an area has a large impact on how someone feels about it. If a space is larger, more private, and less cluttered then the inhabitant is likely to feel more at ease. When the inhabitant is relaxed, they may feel more up to socialize. This idea is also shown in a study of larger, overcrowded residence halls-such as traditional hall-style dorms. It was found that these often require a certain level of sociability that may actually stress out a student and cause them to want to be less social (Rogers & Andrews, 2005). This demonstrates how crucial the layout of a dorm is to a college student, and the notable difference between suite and hall style dorms.

On a normal night, the girls spend time together, regardless of what they are doing; this is a result of living in such close proximity to other people at all times. It is difficult to go a single night without spending time with others, because just simply living with so many people is an act of being social. Despite whether the girls choose to go out or stay in, they all chose to engage in social activities and enjoyed having fun and spending time with one another.

Cultivating Friendships

Cultivating friendships is made easier by living in a suite style dorm. Perhaps the most common theme over my observations-as cheesy as it sounds-is friendship. As an outsider looking in, it was very obvious that these girls loved each other, despite their small quarrels. When asked what the most beneficial part of living in a suite was, one of the girls exclaimed “7 built-in best friends!” (personal communications, November 2016). Many of the other girls had similar responses, which showed me that their friendship was one of the most important aspects ofsuitewell their lives during their freshman year. People always say, “the friends you make in college are the friends you’ll have for life” (Jessica Park). Even social studies back up this claim: “College women…develop stable and lifelong cognitive capital that enables them to navigate the contextual nature of knowledge and integrate that knowledge with their sense of self” (Alemán, 2010). According to Alemán, building life-long friendships at this stage in life is not only natural, but beneficial as well. You are at a stage in your life when you are truly finding yourself- and often finding friends along the way. The girls that I studied in the 9th floor suite are finding these friendships, and they believe that living in a suite together is the cause for this phenomenon. Without living in the same suite together, these girls would have never been friends. I do not say this in a colloquial, cliché way- they literally never would have met or interacted without the common ground of their suite. Many of these girls are very different- they lack many common interests, and some of them even have different political viewpoints. The only thing that unifies them is the fact that they all live together, and are forced to share a mutual space. Overall, it is largely unlikely that these eight girls would be so close if they only lived with their respective roommates in a traditional hall-style dorm.

 

Why You Should Care

Suite style dorms are intriguing because they build community through encouraging individuality, promoting sociability, and building friendship. Studying how suite-style dorms cultivate community is important for many reasons. One of these is that suite-style dorms are becoming increasingly popular among the millennial college student (La Roche, 2010). As suite-style dorms continue to gain in popularity, more students and university faculty alike will want to know more about what it is like to live inside a suite, and the impact that it has on students, especially first-years. Studying the culture of a suite is also important because there is little ethnographic research currently being done on suite-style dorms. There are plenty of articles about how students prefer suites to traditional style dorms, but none of them answer the crucial question: why? My study begins to answer this question. The suite builds upon so many aspects of these girls lives that they didn’t know they were missing before. The intense friendship and social bonds that are made while living with so many other people cannot be compared to any other experiences in college. The study of suites is as important as it is fascinating. The interesting information that I learned about how girls identify themselves among other aspects suggests that there is definitely more research to be done on this topic. Although somewhat stalking my friends for multiple weeks was a strange situation, in the end the research that I gathered will be useful for years to come. Ethnographies are a fun and insightful way to learn more about the world you submerse yourself in every day.

 

[i]Prior to coming to college, would you consider yourself a particularly social person?

What are the benefits of living in a suite?

What are the drawbacks of living in a suite?

How does living in a suite affect your social life?

Are you glad that you chose to live in a suite over a hall-style dorm? If so, why?

Do you think that living in a suite has impacted other aspects of your freshman year? If so,   what?

 

 

Works Cited

Alemán, A. (2010). . (2010). College Women’s Female Friendships: A Longitudinal View. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(5), 553-582. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40835719

 

Rodger, S. C., & Johnson, A. M. (2005). The impact of residence design on freshman outcomes: Dormitories versus suite-style residences. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 35(3), 83-99. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/221135411?accountid=14244

 

La Roche, C. R., Flanigan, M. A., & Copeland, P. J. (2010). Student Housing: Trends, Preferences and Needs. Contemporary Issues In Education Research, 3(10), 45-50.

 

Devlin, A. S., Donovan, S., Nicolov, A., Nold, O., & Zandan, G. (2008). Residence Hall Architecture and Sense of Community: Everything Old Is New Again. Environment and Behavior, 40(4), 487-521. doi:10.1177/0013916507301128

 

[i]Prior to coming to college, would you consider yourself a particularly social person?

What are the benefits of living in a suite?

What are the drawbacks of living in a suite?

How does living in a suite affect your social life?

Are you glad that you chose to live in a suite over a hall-style dorm? If so, why?

Do you think that living in a suite has impacted other aspects of your freshman year? If so, what?

 

 

 

 

 

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