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Dorm Divide

The stark white walls of the Courtenay 130's belie the color, flavor and culture contained in this first-year suite. Besides a hot pot filled with leftover noodles and the standard green upholstered couches hastily shoved against the walls, the common room remains completely unadorned. No one hung a single poster.

Then there are the nameplates posted on the doors to the separate bedrooms. They read: Yohan Kim. Pak Iu. Francois Etienne. Madhu Balachandran.

It's a suite with as much diversity as the Olympic village.

"There is no majority here," first-year College student Scott Kalafatis said. "I think we win for the most multicultural suite."

The Courtenay 130 suite represents a growing trend in the Alderman Road houses, where minority students consistently have been concentrated.

First-year students have the option of choosing between two living areas, the McCormick Road or Alderman Road residence halls. While the two differ in location and layout -- either a hall setup or a suite -- another factor can play into students' consideration: Race.

In McCormick Road housing, 4 percent of the students are black and 5 percent are Asian, compared to 14 percent black and 13 percent Asian residents in Alderman Road housing.

In both instances, the black and Asian students make up the minority, but a much larger minority population exists on Alderman Road.

"It's a self-perpetuating cycle," said Ed Hallen, chair of Student Council's racial and ethnic affairs committee. "And it causes an artificial separation between races."

Hallen said the trends exist in part because incoming students get advice about where to live from older friends who went to their high school. Other times, students want to live in the same area where their parents or siblings did. Both lend to the continuation of people from the same backgrounds concentrating in the same areas.

Two years ago, the administration's enrollment committee recommended the choice between Alderman and McCormick be removed, with the hope that first-year living arrangements would become diversified throughout the dormitories.

"For a variety of reasons in past years there has been less diversity in McCormick Road," Dean of Residence Life Angela Davis said. "Our hope was that by randomly assigning students throughout Alderman and McCormick, especially now that there is a significant number of minority students in the incoming class, there would be an increased opportunity to live in a more diverse community in both areas."

Even though other in-state schools, such as William & Mary, Virginia Tech and James Madison University, already practice a random lottery assignment for dormitories, Student Council initially opposed this recommendation on the grounds that students were not consulted. The recommendation eventually was tabled, however.

The elimination of choice in first-year housing again has surfaced as an issue, this time with the administration calling on Council to survey groups around Grounds and gauge student opinion.

The response, however, has developed into a debate over wanting diversity throughout the first-year dormitories and needing a support system for minority students.

"You can't really call the first-year living situation more diverse by rearranging an undiverse student body," said Ryan McCarthy, chairman of the Coalition, which includes the leaders of the Black Student Alliance, the National Organization for Women, the Latino Student Alliance, the Queer Student Union and the Asian Student Union.

Before action of this sort takes place, McCarthy said the Coalition would like to see the creation of a multicultural center, "a visible space that would be open to everyone, where minority students can congregate."

Pat Lampkin, vice president of student affairs, responded to such concerns.

"The proposal, as I understand it, was not intended to harm one group more than another, but provide more opportunities where people might be stretched out of their comfort zone and learn more about others," Lampkin said.

Back in Courtenay, first-year College student Madhu Balachandran said he prefers his multicultural suite and has been able to reconnect with his Indian roots after going to a predominantly white high school.

"The minorities get assimilated into white culture and you lose part of your identity," Balachandran said. "There's a value in having a concentrated minority community."

His roommate Francois Etienne agreed that he has been more comfortable in a minority environment and would not want to be in a housing arrangement where he could be singled out.

"If I were on a hall where there weren't many minorities, I would feel out of place. I would think, 'I don't belong here,'" Etienne said.

As a Haitian student, Etienne's suitemates come from all over the world -- from Hong Kong and India to Miami and Richmond.

"These people can't be close minded," he said. "The moment we met each other, we knew we were from all different places. We have to learn how to have different viewpoints. I learn about their culture, their environment, and I tell them about my background. We accept each person."

Which is exactly why Hallen said he wants the dorm choice eliminated within the next two years. As the chair of Council's racial and ethnic affairs committee, Hallen said he thinks the multicultural exposure and interaction that Etienne and Balachandran have experienced should not be limited to Alderman Road housing.

The purpose behind the proposal is to "ensure that first years establish contact with a wide diversity of people and make friends across racial lines," Hallen said.

While he agreed that other programs can achieve these same objectives, he said he feels that nothing can spawn understanding of other people better than living with them.

First-year College student Jessica Taylor lives in the McCormick Road area, where 81 percent of the students are white. Out of the 124 residents in her dormitory, Taylor is one of only eight black students, and she echoed the belief that living around people of other cultures can generate a deeper understanding than other kinds of interactions.

"Just being around people makes you more comfortable," Taylor said. "Eventually you'll get to the point where you feel comfortable enough to talk about things like race."

Throughout this first semester, she said she has never felt isolated because of her race or needed a stronger support system.

"I interact with people on the hall because we have similar personalities or interests," she said. "I live with white people, but I've still found my black friends."

Taylor said she would support random housing assignments for first-year students, as long as the University "doesn't say everything's resolved and now we're diverse. It's a means to an end, but it's not an end."

Hallen's committee has looked into other programs such as increased diversity training for Resident Staff and a mandatory diversity seminar for all first years.

Still, the housing issue remains a primary concern.

"Our job is to find out why things are the way they are, and if it's a conscious choice by the students," Hallen said.

Kalafatis, who also lives in the Courtenay 130's, said he had heard about the differing trends between the two living options, and as a white male from Richmond, chose the Alderman Houses in hopes of meeting more minority students.

"I came from a predominantly white area, and I thought this was the best way for me to grow," Kalafatis said.

After attending meetings as a house council member, he said he thinks it's important to have a concentrated minority community with a unified voice.

"I think it's better to have a small group of very strong people instead of a spread-out group of weak people," he said.

The goal of diversity is a lofty one, he added, but a lot of things -- not only in the dorms or at the University, but at large -- need to change first.

"I understand that U.Va. is the stepping stone for the future of America," Kalafatis said. "But America has a lot of catching up to do."

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