They call themselves the Boo Radleys of Sarah Lawrence, like the recluse of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
“It’s kind of socially isolating to be there, more socially isolating than this campus itself, funnily enough,” Madeleine Tompkins (‘18) told the Phoenix.
Tompkins is one of 11 students - ranging from first-years to graduate students - who started their school year at the Hyatt Place New York/Yonkers, along with a graduate assistant who serves as a resident advisor.
“I was actually in Alaska when I found out, on vacation,” Tompkins said. “And I check my email and it was just like, ‘Yeah, we don’t have housing for you, so you’re gonna live in a hotel for an undisclosed amount of time, undisclosed set-up and undisclosed people. And we don’t know how long or where or what’s gonna happen afterward or what the situation really is but that’s your update.’”
The email Tompkins is referring to was sent August 19, 10 days before she was due to arrive. It began “Dear SLC student…”
Paige Crandall, dean of student affairs, said the families of the two first-years who started their year at the Hyatt were concerned when they found out, but understood that the situation was difficult.
“One family was a little more concerned about their student being off-campus,” Crandall said. “I think they appreciated we were working our best and hardest to get a space, but unfortunately until someone would leave we really couldn’t put them in a bed. So it wasn’t just like we had these beds on hold. We had no bed-space.”
Crandall said the school did not plan to place any first-years at the Hyatt, but the families submitted their deposits late in the summer and the school had not planned for their enrollment. Despite this, the school chose to accommodate them.
“We might lose money, but not the students,” Crandall said. “And that’s more important to us, not to lose the students, because it’s not all about money.”
Unlike the first-years, the school was obligated to provide Tompkins accommodations because of its four-year housing guarantee. However, whether the guarantee will continue remains an unknown, according to Crandall.
“I think what we’ve [thought about], working through the Hyatt and this relationship, is that, could this be something that will be used in the future or will we relook at how housing is distributed and what our guarantees are of housing?” Crandall said. “Because we guarantee first-years and require them to live on campus. We don’t require sophomores, juniors to seniors to live on-campus, so some of those pieces I think we need to have a much broader conversation about.”
Thomas Blum, vice president of administration, said that the four-year guarantee creates a real obligation, and that the administration may need to rework it.
Blum discussed the informalities of the conversation thus far, “It may be that on the back of an envelope or on a notepad someone has made some rough calculations but we have not had people get together at a table to start doing those calculations, and think about the policy implications of how we begin to communicate that and market it. We are not even close to those conversations. But this situation did bring the topic back up.”
The college did not predict overflow for this academic year. According to Blum, this year is Sarah Lawrence’s highest undergraduate enrollment in Bronxville on record, with 1334 undergraduate students.
Out of the 125 student increase from last year, only 67 students were projected to attend. Blum explained that the population increase stems from more students than anticipated, better retention, and less students studying abroad.
Every year, the school experiences melt, meaning a portion of admitted students who submitted deposits in May decide to take a gap year or accept a spot off the waitlist at another university. This year, Blum said, the school anticipated 375 first-year students after melt, while 380 arrived in August. That gap was even larger for transfer students. The school expected 30, while 41 enrolled.
“Basically, we have had almost no melt, which is fantastic,” Blum said. “We’ve admitted a good group of students who feel great about Sarah Lawrence.”
The school also experienced the second largest retention rate for a sophomore class. According to Blum, 18 to 19 additional first-year students were expected to withdraw before their sophomore year.
The remaining 23 students who make up the unanticipated 58 attendees are juniors who stayed in Bronxville instead of studying abroad.
Tompkins is not one of these students. She will study abroad in Dublin this spring, a time when traditionally more rooms open up.
The school was able to keep 47 of the 58 students on campus by doubling and tripling up rooms that had previously been designated as singles and doubles.
Although 6 of the 11 Hyatt kids have been since placed in permanent housing on-campus, Tompkins has lived at the hotel for over a month.
Crandall and Blum would not disclose the amount of money the school is paying the Hyatt. A single room with a king-sized bed, without a sofa bed, at the Hyatt Place New York/Yonkers costs on average $159-$299 per night, though Blum said the school negotiated a “really good rate.”
This is not the first time the school has honored its four-year housing guarantee in a unique way. According to Blum, before the acquisition of Hill House some 15 years ago, a group of students were put in the Avalon apartment complex in Bronxville. Rachel Hochberger (‘18), who started her year at the Hyatt, thinks an apartment-style set up would have been more ideal.
Along with the amenities offered by the Hyatt, including a weekly cleaning service and free breakfast, the school runs a shuttle Monday through Friday to campus.
“Obviously the distance has made it complicated, having to walk or call shuttles, but the accommodations were definitely nice, nicer than any dorm I’ve had at Sarah Lawrence,” Hochberger said. “So yeah, I think it was just sort of a give and take.”
On drawbacks, Tompkins discussed the lack of storage available to her in the temporary housing. She said Mo Gallagher, assistant vice president for facilities, agreed to store her CollegeBoxes in the Hill House garage.
Tompkins also said she would not have signed up for a meal plan had she known she would be staying at the Hyatt.
“I’ve spent way too much money on food. ‘Cuz here, the meal plans work on certain hours of the day so in order for me to get three meals I have to be here for at least five plus hours to use two meal swipes,” Tompkins said. “So I’ve just been buying groceries all the time. It doesn’t help that I live next to Chipotle.”
Hochberger said the school could have done more group activities with the Hyatt kids, as the living situation was isolating at times.
“It’s hard because you can’t really like leave your doors open in a hotel room,” Hochberger said. “That’s certainly a drawback of that situation. I mean as much as you’re in this nice room, you’re by yourself.”
For privacy reasons, the school could not share Tompkins’ and Hochberger’s names, or what preferences led them to be placed at the Hyatt, though both students say they were on the guaranteed waitlist.
“There's a lot of factors that go into guaranteed waitlist placement,” said Wendy Eklund, assistant director of residence life. “Not just lottery number, but student preferences and student spaces available on campus, as well, that meet those students' preferences.”
Hochberger moved into permanent on-campus housing mid-September. She said living at the Hyatt gave her a different frame of reference.
“It’s not super typical for a bunch of college students to be living in a hotel. I mean it obviously wasn’t an intentional thing. It wasn’t like, ‘We want to start a dorm in a hotel,’” Hochberger said. “I don’t know if it was the best executed plan but I mean, in my case, I feel like it worked out.”
Hochberger said she would probably feel differently if, like Tompkins, she was still living at the Hyatt, not knowing where she would end up.
Though Tompkins does not blame the school’s current administration, she argued her circumstances illustrate larger missteps.
“It’s moments like this where they haven’t planned for the future, they’re still operating in the model of past history,” she said. “They need to find different ways to operate to hold true to the school’s mission but still live in the modern world and be practical.”
In response to the Boo Radley-esque isolation, Crandall said, “We understand how they are feeling and we are working with getting them moved back to campus as fast as we can when spaces become available."
Jamie Jordan '19