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Room With a View: Student Life in the Wabash Building

The Wabash Building (blue building, center) with Lake Michigan behind it.

The Wabash Building (the blue-green 32-story building just right of center) with the Auditorium Building, Grant Park, and Lake Michigan . 

LEED-Certified BuildingAll Marta and Hector Rodriguez wanted when they left El Salvador 10 years ago was a better life for their children and a chance at the American dream. Never did they imagine their second son, 18-year-old Hector, a freshman business major, would start his college journey living on the 31st floor, the top housing floor in Roosevelt University's new Wabash Building, which is home for the first time this semester to 619 Roosevelt students, most whom are freshmen.

"We're all overwhelmed," said the Roosevelt student, who translated from Spanish to English for his parents as they sat perched next to his bedroom window, gazing down at Lake Michigan and the city's South Loop.

"They want you to know, we've only been in this country for a short time," said the younger Hector Rodriguez, a 2012 graduate of Maine West High School in Des Plaines, Ill. "We've been through a lot of changes since we came to United States, and for me to be able to live here and to experience what it's like to live in one of the country's most famous cities – it's almost unimaginable."

Such is the promise of the Wabash Building. Offering unique opportunities for living on campus in an urban environment, it also is a place where community is a priority and key to the experience.

"Roosevelt attracts fantastic students who want to explore diverse cultures, the performing and visual arts as well as the robust Chicago nightlife. Our students' commitment to our historical mission of social justice is further enhanced by exposure to urban challenges and the many opportunities for giving back that exist in this fabulous gateway city," said Sallye McKee, vice president for enrollment and student services at Roosevelt University. "Our newly expanded and improved Residence Life program is designed to support a customized, well rounded portfolio of developmental experiences in an array of interactive, living and learning communities," said McKee.

Serving a record number of nearly 1,000 Roosevelt students who are now living on campus in three separate downtown facilities, the Residence Life program is led by new Assistant Vice President Bridget Collier, who lives with her husband and their baby on the 16th floor of the Wabash Building..

"Living in Residence Life can be a dynamic experience," said Collier, 34, who has spent 14 years – more than a third of her life – living, studying and working in student housing facilities around the country, including at Ball State University in Indiana, Northern Arizona University and the University of California at Los Angeles.

"""We are in the process of building the kind of program that will bond our students, not only to each other, but also very strongly to Roosevelt University," said Collier, who is joined by new Assistant Director of Residence Life Matt Smith, formerly a residence hall director at the University of Nevada at Reno, and Katharine Denny, the new coordinator of housing administration who has been working in student services at Roosevelt since 2007.

"Our goal is to connect our students so closely with the institution that they will say, 'It's great to be home' every time they return to Roosevelt from a break or vacation."

Collier, who has a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Southern California, spent a number of years from 2004-10 building what are known as living and learning communities as a live-in director of student housing at UCLA. There she worked closely with UCLA Associate Professor of World Arts and Culture David Gere, the brother of movie star Richard Gere, starting a communal reading program at a UCLA residence hall where Collier and Professor Gere lived. Large numbers of students in the UCLA hall gathered weekly, sometimes in their pajamas, to read and discuss community books inspiring activism. The first was Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by American writer Tracy Kidder. Tracing the life of physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer and his work in fighting HIV/AIDS in Haiti, the book sparked interest among students in starting and taking courses in global activism at the residence hall, led to creation of a student-run volunteer center as well as student fundraisers for Haitians in need of help after the earthquake in 2010.

"What's special about the Wabash Building is that when the lights are turned out and faculty and administrators are gone for the day, we'll still have more than 600 students up in the building with a lot of opportunities available for living and learning," said Collier.

So far, there's been universal delight among the students who are the first to call the Wabash Building their home away from home.

Wabash views

"It's an exciting feeling to be the first," said Wes Lee, 19, a sophomore and undecided major from Detroit, who is a resident assistant living on the building's 29th floor. "It means we have to lay down a great foundation and build a lasting legacy."

Added Janessa Rivas, 19, a sophomore elementary education major from Chicago who is a resident assistant on the 27th floor: "The building looks so awesome on the outside and I know that years from now people are going to be talking about it and looking at this place as a model for what life in student housing should be." Since opening in May, the Wabash Building has received high praise for its unique undulating blue-green exterior and complementary mixture of space for student housing, academics and student life activities. The Chicago Tribune called it "Chicago's latest innovation in skyscraper design" and a "sizzling" addition to the city's skyline. Visitors to the "vertical campus" will find the first-floor lobby at 425 S. Wabash abuzz with students; the 300-seat Robert R. McCormick dining center a regular meeting place for breakfast, lunch and dinner; the fifth-floor Barry Crown Fitness Center attracting a mix of Lakers athletes, students living on campus and Roosevelt employees; the Heller College of Business' first-rate headquarters on floors 10-12; chemistry, biology and physics experiments underway in state-of-the art labs on floors seven through nine; two high-tech, lecture-style tiered classrooms with seating for more than 100 students; the University Bookstore, and much, much more.

Makeup of the on-campus student body in the Wabash Building looks like this: nearly two thirds of residents are women;more than half are new freshmen; the youngest resident is 17 and the oldest is 40; nearly two-thirds are from Illinois with the majority from the Chicago metropolitan region; in addition, there are residents from 33 others states, as well as from other countries including Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Morocco, Austria, Italy, Japan, Russia, Nigeria, Taiwan, China and Argentina, to name just a few.

"What I'm hoping to achieve during my semester here is to get to know people from different backgrounds and different countries," said Qiniso Zamandla Zungu, 21, an international exchange student from the University of South Africa at Kwazulu-Natal. She lives on the 19th floor with her roommate, 19-yearold Mallorie Miller of St. Charles, Ill. Miller hopes to study in South Africa next year.

"We are learning about one another's cultures and are navigating the city together," said Miller. With winter arriving, students also will find they don't have to go out in the cold, as the Wabash Building and Roosevelt's historic Auditorium Building are connected at four locations.

"It's a place that our students never have to leave, whether they're studying, having fun or taking classes," said Tanya Woltmann, senior associate vice president for student services. "Our goal is to create an environment here where living and learning go hand in hand." Collier believes the University's mission of social justice will be instrumental in driving formation and growth of live-and-learn communities where students can make a difference. In addition, Roosevelt faculty members will be invited to meet with students living at the Wabash Building to discuss their research and to have dinner with students.

Jennifer Schoolcraft, 21, a senior sociology major from Indian River, Mich., and a resident assistant this semester on the Wabash Building's 18th floor, understands the importance of connecting students who are living on campus for the first time with learning opportunities.

"I grew up in a rural farming area, and never before had lived in a metropolitan city," said Schoolcraft, who was at University Center as a freshman, Roosevelt on Washington as a sophomore and was a Gilman Scholarship winner and international student last year in Bern, Switzerland.

"The connections I made with other students and the University helped shape my life and influence my character," she said. "As a result, one of my goals this year is to give back to many of the University's first time students by helping to connect them to Roosevelt and its resources…The Wabash Building is unique, unlike any other in the country, and I believe it is leading the University and its on-campus students into a new progressive phase in higher education," Schoolcraft said.


Roosevelt Review, Fall 2012 [ PDF ]