Classes start next week at UMass Boston, so the campus is bustling like you might expect. Residential assistants are in training, workers are setting up cafeteria tables, students will move into their dorm rooms on Sunday.
Wait. Dorm rooms? Residential assistants? At the University of Massachusetts Boston?
It’s true. In what will be a transformative step for the longtime commuter school, the campus is preparing to open its first-ever residence hall next week. The 1,077-bed facility has long been a dream of the city’s only public university.
The 12-story dorm is the culmination of years of planning, lobbying, reassuring neighbors, and searching for funding. But walk around the gleaming new building that still smells of fresh paint and you get no sense of how much effort it took to make it a reality.
From the windows of the dorm’s sunny common rooms, a panoramic view of the harbor spans from Back Bay to Quincy. Sailboats bob in the water. Looking down toward the campus itself, one can see new buildings and a reconfigured roadway that at last suggest what a fully transformed campus might look like when it emerges from years of demolition piles and delayed construction projects.
The dormitory forms something of a new gateway to the campus from Mount Vernon Street, with a gleaming sign to welcome students. Budget problems still plague the university, and numerous massive construction projects still lie ahead, but the new dorm represents a significant milestone.
“The whole campus is going to feel completely different,” said interim Chancellor Katherine Newman on Monday, as she gazed out at the Boston Harbor Islands from an 11th-floor common room.
Still, the financial details of the dormitory’s construction hint at the predicament the university faces. The $120 million project was paid by Capstone Development, a private company that is leasing land from UMass. This arrangement came about because the university has already borrowed so much money it has reached a self-imposed cap set by university trustees.
Dorm revenue will go to Capstone, but after 40 years ownership will revert to UMass.
For years, UMass leaders lobbied the state for permission to complete this type of public-private project, which was met with opposition from nearby private universities, which saw it as a potential threat.
Nearby neighborhoods also raised concerns but have now largely come around. Opposition from the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association has mostly evaporated, said longtime resident Don Walsh, who used to oppose the dorm.
“All the kids who want to live out there, let them live out there,” Walsh said Monday.
He said the neighborhood used to be filled with families who worried about students pricing them out, but the families were priced out anyway, he said. If anything, the dorm might mean fewer students living in the neighborhoods.
The university has no plans to build more buildings right away, nor does it have the money. But it has ambitions, first for a new nursing building. That school, one of the most popular and successful at UMass Boston, is housed in a science center that is set to be demolished; the temporary plan is to move the nursing program into rooms in the administration building and library.
The dormitory is a three-part building of 12, seven, and nine floors. The first floor is a 500-seat dining hall and event space with smaller rooms that students can reserve for studying or activities. The dorm staff plans to hold events for commuter students and to help them feel included in the new student life activities.
The dorm is open only to freshmen, and 40 percent of the entering first-years will live there. Research shows that students perform better academically if they live on campus because they are more focused on their work. UMass Boston, a majority-minority school, is trying to improve its graduation rate, which is 48 percent for freshmen, the highest rate to date.
The incoming dorm students will be primarily from Massachusetts, with 16 percent out-of-staters and 3 percent international students, according to UMass. The university spent $1.4 million on dormitory scholarships so that 20 percent of residents will be low-income students who have an average family income of $34,000.
The rooms are a mix of sizes from singles to quads, some with private bathrooms and others that share common, gender-neutral bathrooms in the hall. A dorm room costs about $10,000 for the year, depending on the size. The mandatory meal plan costs $2,700 per semester.
This week, upperclassmen who will work as residential assistants moved into their rooms after four days of team-building and training in the woods of Connecticut.
On the fifth floor, Ursula Barth had already decorated her room with succulent plants along a window sill that looked out over Dorchester Bay to Castle Island. This week they have been learning everything from how to comfort weepy parents who drop off their children to how to report a burnt-out lightbulb to how to handle students who have been drinking.
The housing will be transformative for the RAs, too. Victor Acevedo, a junior, used to commute from Methuen using a combination of trains that took three hours each way. The bliss of his new situation is beginning to sink in.
Acevedo, 23, went shopping at Target last weekend, and on the way back the Uber driver asked if he was headed home.
“I felt weird in answering yes,” he said. “I’m going home, and it’s usually three hours away . . . and now it’s 10 minutes.”