Natalie Rodriguez '22 participated in last year's pilot special-interest housing community Wilderness and Outdoor Leadership (WOLF). The program gave first-year students the opportunity to hike, canoe, and snowshoe while forming lasting friendships.
There are those awkward getting-to-know-you gambits like “Share two truths and a lie about yourself” and “Describe your mood in one word” … or there’s video games. From the perspective of Nathan Ward ’22, video games are universal these days, making them an organic way for people to bond. After all, “everyone has played Tetris at some point,” he observes.

When the Residential Life Office put out a call seeking themes for this fall’s special-interest housing for upperclass students, Ward suggested video gaming. “[Speaking for] myself and a few other people I know, we’ve met some of our best friends through games, and I wanted to see if I could bring that to Hamilton,” the intended physics major says.

Nathan Ward '22
Nathan Ward '22, whose video gaming special-interest housing community will take up residence in Saunders House. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

Special-interest housing is a section of a residence hall dedicated for students with a common interest. “At its best, it means students are actively engaging with others in growing together, supporting each other, and discovering themselves,” says Dean of Students Terry Martinez. “It’s a wonderfully intentional way for students to connect and learn from each other.”

Hamilton launched its first special-interest community last year in Dunham Hall — the pilot Wilderness and Outdoor Leadership Floor for first-year students. WOLF drew 22 students for the fall semester, plus a few more January admits just in time for snowshoeing. The community was such a hit that Residential Life decided to offer it again to incoming students next year and add two more first-year communities: community service and mindfulness and meditation.

To create communities for upperclass students, Residential Life turned to the experts, students, for ideas. “Picking the topics for upperclassmen probably wouldn’t go over very well if [it came from our staff], so students were asked to propose their own ideas. We selected two that we’re going to pilot,” says Ashley Place, director of residential life. 

One is Ward’s video-gaming community; the other is Spanish language and culture, a proposal that came from Emma Parkhurst ’21. She’s a neuroscience major who wants to learn Spanish but has never managed to work a course into her schedule.

At its best, it means students are actively engaging with others in growing together, supporting each other, and discovering themselves.

Both communities will live in Saunders House on Griffin Road. Ten students, including Parkhurst, signed up for the Spanish group, and six students, plus Ward, for the video game crew. Ward and Parkhurst will shape group activities, supported by a shared resident advisor and the Residential Life staff.

“We’re going to help direct them — assist with the logistics of how to plan a program and the resources needed for funding. But the ideas and actual execution are going to come from the students,” Place says.

Ward is pondering a group trip to one of the major East Coast video gaming conferences and, of course, lots of group sessions. His personal taste runs to more experimental games, for instance Pathologic, a roleplaying game. “It’s made by a small group of Russian developers and is a sort of meta-contextual experience. It explores all types of philosophy, especially relating to death, and talks about how telling stories affects us,” Ward says.

Among Parkhurst’s ideas: a book club, creating and sampling native cuisine, and volunteering in the Spanish-speaking community in nearby Utica. 

Emma Pakrhurst '21
Emma Parkhurst '21, who is coordinating a special-interest housing community focused on Spanish language and culture. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

Although the topics may be different, both Ward and Parkhurst share a common goal for their groups — that they gel into a close-knit group of friends. “I just hope that everyone individually is able to say that they progressed in terms of language learning and really grew in any way they can as people, finding new people on campus to be friends with,” Parkhurst says.

WOLF set a high standard for Hamilton’s new communities. If the College offered a WOLF for upperclass students, Natalie Rodriguez ’22 would join the pack for a second year. Growing up in Miami, she jumped at the chance to be part of the pilot. “I just never had those outdoor opportunities of going canoeing or hiking,” she says. “Imagine me having all of these amazing outdoor experiences — even having a campfire [or] making s’mores. As long as it’s healthy and nonthreatening, I’m always down for new experiences.” 

With WOLF, Rodriguez climbed her first mountain and became friends with students she doubts she’d have met otherwise.

One secret to WOLF’s success was the tireless RA Gianni Hill ’21, outdoor adventurer and double major in public policy and Hispanic studies. When Hill applied for an RA job, he was offered the considerable challenge of developing and overseeing WOLF, with substantial help in particular from Sarah Jillings, assistant director of outdoor leadership. 

Hill liked the idea of designing a program himself, even though he knew it would be hard, especially figuring out the ideal number of events to offer, working out logistics for trips, and balancing activities with his schedule and those of the other students. But he thought it would be worth it. He remembers wondering as a first-year student where he belonged on campus and what his niche would be. He happened to live on a floor whose residents became close, in his words, “by chance.”

“I liked the relationships we built on that floor, and I wanted to model that here: show people that you can live together in the same space, build lasting relationships, and also do fun stuff,” he says.

He put together dinners and other events designed to help students get to know one another, plus bigger excursions, working with Jillings. The group journeyed twice to Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks to camp, hike, climb a mountain, canoe, and in the winter, snowshoe. With an eye toward future WOLF RAs, Hill kept a detailed log of what the group did and how things went.

WOLF participants venture to Chittenango Falls for an outing.

Attendance for the events and activities was voluntary, yet students turned out. When he organized an overnight retreat at the Glen House, almost every student showed up for the duration, and two more stopped by who couldn’t stay the night. He had no problem filling the vans for any of the trips. If too many people signed up, he gave priority to students who hadn’t gone on one yet.

Participation is one measure of the program’s success, but as the pilot year wound down, Place and the Residential Life staff were developing other ways to evaluate WOLF. “We are working on assessing how students feel connected to the community compared to students who are not in this program. I’m looking at behavioral data and even academic success,” Place adds.

Campaign Priority: Learning and Living

The special advantages of a residential liberal arts experience are the meaningful learning and living communities that complement what takes place in the classroom. Because Hamilton will support enhancements to residence halls, common spaces, and dining options; expand athletics facilities; and increase programs focused on wellness, leadership, and mentoring.

support Learning and living

Here’s an informal endorsement: Life in the pilot community was so agreeable to Jade Xu ’22 that she’s signed up to live in another one this fall. Xu is one of Ward’s video gaming housemates, eager to learn more games than the one she plays — Pubge, the mobile version of Fortnite. To make the most of the limited free time she has as an intended physics and math double major, she likes the idea of ready proximity to other gamers. 

Xu, who is from China, says she came to an American college for more than academics. She wants to get to know people who grew up in different cultures and to hear their views about politics and other issues. “So in terms of housing, I want to know more, different people,” she says. “I’ve met a lot of outdoorsy kids. Now I want to know American nerds.”

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