How dorm life helps students find community

On-campus residence isn’t just a university thing. Many colleges in Canada offer student housing and all its benefits.

Liza Agrba
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(Photo by Mattias Fredriksson)

For Amy Tham, an international student from Vietnam who’s going into her second year in early childhood education at Coast Mountain College in Terrace, British Columbia, living in residence was key to her adjustment to life in Canada. “In my first few months here, I didn’t even know where to get the basics: groceries, stationery and so on,” she says. “Fellow students in residence told me exactly where to go and how to get there. It’s such a lovely, caring, friendly environment.”

Tham says that her residence, the brand-new Wii Gyemsiga Siwilaawksat Student Building, is so beautiful that she feels like she’s living in a museum. The building is energy-efficient and features 70 Indigenous art installations, a cedar-clad central celebration room, an Elder suite and two suites for visiting family members. (Nearly half of Coast Mountain’s student population is Indigenous.) It is a striking counterexample to the persistent myth that student housing is an afterthought at post-secondary institutions other than universities.

Canadian colleges tend to cater primarily to commuters, as many students choose to live at home or off-campus to balance school with work or family responsibilities. But many schools have excellent student housing as well as social and academic support for their residents. From British Columbia to Prince Edward Island, Canadian colleges offer myriad options for anyone looking for the full campus experience.

The Wii Gyemsiga Siwilaawksat Student Building in B.C. (Photo by Mattias Fredriksson)

Kaden Wyman just completed a two-year heavy equipment and agricultural equipment diploma program at Olds College. “I’m from Edmonton, which is about two hours north of Olds. That would have been quite the commute, so residence was an obvious choice for me,” says Wyman. “And I wanted that on-campus college life. Looking back, I absolutely loved my two years there.”

Wyman lived in Centennial Village, an apartment-style building complete with a fitness centre and a 3,000-square-foot student centre that has a fireplace, a big-screen TV, and foosball and ping pong tables. Residence includes everything from paint and movie nights to gaming tournaments. For Wyman, living in res was an invaluable way to connect with fellow students. “I’m a queer individual and was nervous about living in small-town southern Alberta,” Wyman says. “But the campus and residence community were so supportive—as were, it turns out, all the people I met in town. I had an incredible time. Plus, living in Centennial Village comes with a meal package, and I really didn’t want to cook for myself.”

For many students who stay in residence, college is their first time living away from home. It makes sense, then, that dorms are typically designed to serve as a gentle bridge to independent life. Many have cleaning staff and meal plans, and some come with fully equipped kitchens for the culinarily inclined. Proximity to class and other campus resources is another feature of student housing that often eases the transition to independence: when you’ve hit snooze for the fifth time and have 15 minutes to get to your lecture, it helps to be within walking distance of class.

Live-in support is another benefit of staying in res. Student advisers are there to help their peers navigate the complexities of adult life, from managing courseloads to relationships. Whether for social butterflies or wallflowers, residences tend to facilitate communal comfort and lasting friendships.

For Tham, the activities offered in residence made a big difference in helping her find community. “Every two weeks or so, students gather to do things like bingo night, stress-free colouring, or even egg hunting. We share food and talk about our lives, and just enjoy our time together.” Tham liked it so much that she applied to be a housing adviser herself after her first year at Coast Mountain. This fall, she’ll be helping other students adjust to life in Terrace.