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For 50 years, commuting students have come to UMass Boston by car, subway and bus, only to leave as the campus closed each evening.
On Tuesday that timeworn "commuter college" identity cracked a little, as school and state leaders cut the ribbon on UMass Boston's first-ever student dormitory, which will house a little more than 1,000 of its 12,000-plus undergraduate students.
The opening is another sign that Boston's only public university is changing, and turning a corner on some of the most difficult years in its history. But some on campus see room to question the nature of that change, and what comes next.
Katherine Newman, the school's new interim chancellor, thanked her predecessors, especially past chancellor Keith Motley, and the whole campus community.
They, she said, "had to suffer through years and years of dirt mounds, of construction noise, of labyrinthine roadways that snaked all the way around the campus, and the constant pressure of difficult budget decisions." But now, Newman said, Motley's vision for a dorm has become "a stunningly beautiful reality."
It's worth considering the ways in which UMass Boston is unusual. The school enrolls more low-income students than any other UMass campus. It's the only campus whose undergraduate enrollment is "majority minority."
But it has also been snarled in a fiscal bind, the worst in the system, for several years. And its physical plant is uniquely haunted by the aftereffects of shoddy construction and political corruption dating back to its beginning of its time on Columbia Point in the 1970s.
Finally, until this week, it was the only one where all students went home at the end of the day.
Even among America's top-tier universities, that's highly unusual.
At Tuesday's ribbon-cutting, UMass system president Marty Meehan put it more starkly: "If you look at [the top] 300 institutions, the only one of them — the only one in the nation — without housing on its campus was UMass Boston. That’s unacceptable.”
On top of that, the building is impressive: It has bright, modern rooms, an all-you-can-eat dining hall and sweeping views of Boston's harbor and skyline.
Sophomore Eriq Gassé of Andover will be a resident adviser in the dorm. He was one of 31 students to get chosen as an RA from a field of more than 300 applicants; he'll receive free room and board in exchange for helping along the school's inaugural crop of resident first-years adjust to life on campus.
Gassé's move was easy; last year he lived among families and neighbors in the Harbor Point housing complex just down the street.
Now, he lives in a solo suite on the fourth floor of the new residence hall. He says it has one of the building's "poorer" views — but still, it's more harbor than parking lot.
And he agrees with Meehan that having all-student housing could have a great effect on camaraderie and school spirit.
"We're going to have more of a family feel... like we belong to the campus," Gassé expects. "We have the same ideals and we have the same mission — to cater to the local people... — but you know, it's really just a new start for us." About 80 percent of the first dorm residents will come from Massachusetts.
A little will have to go a long way. Only about 8 percent of UMass Boston's students — all first-years — will live in the dorm. Room and board costs about $16,000 per academic year.
And UMass Boston is still weighed down by debt, though it didn't borrow any more to build the dorm. Instead, Capstone Development, the Alabama firm that funded the construction, will make its investment back by collecting students' housing fees for the next 40 years.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony was marked by protest, a regular feature of big events on campus.
Protestors banged drums and held up signs, complaining about budget cuts and planned hikes in parking fees, from as little as $18 now to as much as $45 for three days a week.
Senior Christopher Simon co-chairs the SaveUMB group, and helped organize that protest.
He said he doesn't oppose the dormitory, but he says that raising fees and cutting costs will make life harder for the school's commuter majority. “$45 doesn't sound like a lot. But a lot of these people, they have two jobs, people got kids. People are coming here barely making ends meet in some cases," Simon said.
Simon put forward another vision for how to make the campus ready for the 21st century: "Stop firing teachers. Stop cutting classes and majors that people rely on. And fund the school, so that the people who want to come here can come here."
The school will provide cost-saving options so students can park for less. The first campus residents move in on Sunday.
This segment aired on August 29, 2018.
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