On a Tuesday evening inside the Fischer Community Center, a group of friends laughed together. It was a hall council meeting, and they were brainstorming ideas for a final celebration before the end of the spring semester: “No, no, let’s do a bouncy house!” two girls exclaimed, looking towards the woman across from them on the couch. The woman grinned, “Okay! Why not?” A boy cut in with his own idea: “Wait! What if every apartment got their own inflatable swimming pool?” This sent all 15 of them into a loud chorus of bemused agreement before the meeting continued on to other articles of business.
Witnessing the camaraderie of the group, it is difficult to believe that they had only met a semester ago, in the wake of the university’s decision to cancel all study abroad programs due to the pandemic. In order to accommodate the larger than usual number of juniors living on campus, around 40 upperclassmen were given the unique opportunity to live in the Fischer Graduate Residences, resulting in Notre Dame’s first co-ed, on-campus undergraduate community.
The unprecedented nature of the community and the diverse backgrounds of the students presented a unique set of challenges to incoming rector, and current rector of Farley, Sara Thoms. “Coming from all these different dorms, the first priority was creating as many opportunities to connect with each other and get to know each other.”
Thoms was quick to get creative, instituting a student leadership council for the community during the first weeks of the fall. This group substituted the RAs who typically form a ubiquitous presence in other residence halls. “Because we have a small community … we also don’t have hall staff,” Thoms said. “Because of that, we have had to activate a lot of student leadership.”
In addition to the leadership council, a formal hall government with commissioner positions was also established. According to Thoms, this government has created a deeply engaged and integrated student community. “Some students told me they came here to get away from hall staff, but those students who told me that actually come to everything, every event,” she explained. “We work together to make the community what it is, and so the community is only as good as the effort we put into it.”
For junior CJ Foronda, an executive in hall government, losing the chance to study abroad was devastating: “I expected to be abroad for the entire academic year.” For Foronda and many other students, the cancellation not only meant the loss of living and studying in a foreign country, but also the loss of new camaraderie that comes with it. Hall president Abby Schierl echoed this sentiment, saying that “when you study abroad, the people you meet are supposed to become some of your closest friends.”
Despite the loss of this opportunity, it’s clear that the intentional community built in Fischer has provided a special residential experience over the past year. “Completely unexpectedly, these people happened to become some of my closest friends,” said Camille Broderick, hall co-vice president. “And the co-ed aspect has definitely been a part of that.”
Many students feel the community has a “neighborhood feel” and a “homey” closeness that benefits from the community’s mix of separate apartment living and features of dorm life. Co-vice president Stephen Koch said, “It’s a good experience as an upperclassman because we have a little more space than in a dorm but still have a lot of friends around us.”
While the individual apartments are single-sex, residents repeatedly identified the co-ed nature of the community as a positive. According to junior Lexi Martin, “I’ve gotten to form friendships with some really great guys and it’s been super fun having co-ed hall council meetings and dorm events.” Those events, ranging from outdoor movie watches to apple picking outings, have served as catalysts for fostering a sense of community among the residents. From there, their bonds have only continued to grow.
Overall, Thoms is proud of what has been accomplished in Fischer over just a few months. “We didn’t have to do any of this,” she acknowledged, referring to the hall council meeting which just wrapped up. “We could have just said, ‘we don’t need that, because we’re only 35 people.’ But what we’re doing out here really speaks to the heart of the residential mission of Notre Dame. Even when we have people on the margins of campus, we still make sure we have the same access to the community.”