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Students evaluate motives for race-based housing decisions

When third-year College student Michael McPheeters, a Chatam, Va., native, entered the University in the fall of 1997, he lived in McCormick Road dormitories, a predominantly white residence area.

McPheeters, now co-president of the University's Black Fraternal Council, said at the time he knew very few black students in the area and not until the year progressed did he meet many other black students at all.

"Initially, when I started going out, I went out with white students. I did the Rugby scene," McPheeters said, noting that he didn't particularly enjoy it. "I thought that was the only thing to do."

He said later on he found other students with interests closer to his own.

"I found people who liked to do what I like to do, but I don't think being black was a prerequisite," he said.

McPheeters is now a Resident Coordinator at Massie Road's Faulkner Apartments, a popular home to many upperclassmen.

Offering single bedrooms and large living rooms, the area is difficult for underclassmen to obtain, but according to the University's Office of Institutional Studies and Assessment, it is not popular among white students.

"The living conditions at Faulkner are the same as for the University as a whole," McPheeters said. "People at U.Va. tend to self-select anyway, whether it's housing or dining or anything else. For those people who choose to live on Grounds, they choose to live with friends and this is where they choose to be."

The statistics show that of 144 Faulkner residents, 109 identified themselves as black, while 14 identified themselves as white, 11 as Asian and two as Latino. One student did not mark any racial background.

In contrast to Faulkner is Lambeth Field Apartments, an upperclassmen housing area that is predominately white. Of Lambeth's 807 residents, 551 identified themselves as white, and of the remaining students, 129 residents identified themselves as Asian, 48 as black, four as Native American, 25 as Latino, four as "unclassified" and 26 as non-resident alien. Twenty students did not mark any racial background.

Chera Reid, third-year Education student and Faulkner resident, said she attributed the discrepancy to social factors - mainly that Lambeth is closer to fraternity-lined Rugby Road, where many white students socialize.

"The whole Rugby Road scene supports more white students than African American students - if they're not going to party on Rugby, why live near it?" Reid said.

Reid also said Faulkner's large population of black students should not be viewed any differently than other, predominantly white residence areas.

"In Faulkner, people tend to note that there's a high percentage of African-American students," she said. "People fail to also notice that Rugby-Chancellor Street is predominantly white."

New dorms vs. old dorms

As for first-year housing, Alderman dormitories are home to significantly more non-white students than McCormick dormitories, a fact some say is due to the success and timing of Spring Fling.

Spring Fling is an event-packed weekend organized for prospective black first-year students by the University's Office of Admissions and Office of African-American Affairs.

When prospective first-year students receive their acceptance letters, they are invited to spend the weekend with a first-year host and decide later if they will accept or decline the University's offer.

Since Spring Fling traditionally is not held until the third weekend of April, black prospective students do not send in their acceptance letters until after most of the McCormick dormitories have filled. As a result, they accept housing in Alderman dormitories which fill up less quickly.

"When [black] students come to Spring Fling, their hosts live in new dorms and that perpetuates itself," McPheeters said, noting that more students in Alderman dormitories host Spring Fling participants than students in McCormick dormitories.

Black Student Alliance Co-President Fabienne Nicaisse echoed McPheeters.

"Spring Fling sets the tone for where many students want to live," Nicaisse said. "You're always going to live where your friends are and with people who are like you."

Minority students' preference for Alderman dormitories also may be accounted for by the suite set-up, which sometimes leads to a more diverse living arrangement.

Although she said she cannot speak on behalf of Residence Life, Tuttle House Resident Assistant Ashley Meeks said her experience as an RA in Tuttle has been a diverse one.

"It's very good because the suite situation fosters conversations about diversity, and fosters more intimate relationships between residents," Meeks said. "It's a good place to have diversity because [residents] are interacting all the time."

Within Alderman dormitories, Tuttle is home to the most minority students, with 40 out of 107 residents identifying themselves as non-white. But Tuttle's diversity sometimes goes beyond racial factors.

"As far as diversity goes - it's not necessarily about racial and ethnic diversity," Meeks said. "Tuttle typically has a lot of athletes, therefore you have people from all ends of the spectrum. You have athletes, computing advisors, the environmentalists. There are lots of opportunities for diversity that other dorms might not necessarily have."

In addition to the racial diversity factor, the University's Greek system has more influence in the McCormick dormitories with more first-year students rushing Inter Sorority Council sororities and Inter Fraternity Council fraternities than their Alderman dormitory counterparts.

"Race is definitely more obvious. But people don't pay attention to the fact that fewer students in Alderman rush IFC and ISC fraternities and sororities than students over in McCormick," Reid said. "It's far too easy to just point at race differences when there are so many other factors - other than race - that go into housing choices."

Looking at the statistics

The statistics show that as first-years, white students prefer to live in McCormick dormitories, and as upperclassmen, they prefer Lambeth and Bice House. Alderman dormitories tend to house more minorities, and Faulkner, Copeley and Gooch-Dillard residence areas tend to house more minorities during their subsequent years.

But Gooch-Dillard Head Resident Cassandra Bisbee said the statistics are not true judges of an area's diversity.

"The focus really shouldn't be there," Bisbee said. "It should be more on the individuals than on statistics. Each area is diverse in and of itself."

See the Housing Statistics Chart