Beep beep booooooooooooop. A swipe of an ID and then a long blue pulse. If you’ve been on campus during the previous year, you would know that this — a building rejecting your keycard — has been happening a lot more than usual.
For a year, special privileges have been needed to access most buildings on campus. Want to get into Seeley Mudd, but you aren’t in a math class? Nope. Clark House? Nope. Studying in the Chapin Lounge? Nope. Even the Science Center’s unique 24/7 hours were reduced to an anemic Frost-like schedule. If you weren’t a lab worker, you couldn’t get in after hours.
These changes segregated students based on our classes and interests, banned students from using the resources that should be available to all of us and made finding the perfect study spot — frequently outside of your department’s building — almost impossible.
But of all of the changes to our building access, one stands out: for the first time for any student currently at Amherst, our IDs no longer swiped us into dorms other than our own. And while the administration has not yet indicated whether this policy will continue, I urge them to drop it. Limiting our keycard access to only our own dorms harms our campus community, makes our campus less equitable and threatens student safety.
Part of Amherst’s allure is its unique residential life: few students living off campus, room for everyone (well, kinda…) and a strong community where everything, including parties, happens on campus. As our website puts it, “Amherst is a place where learning includes living.” And unlike some of the other promises on the website, I have to agree.
I love that everyone in my classes lives at most a five minute’s walk away. It makes the college experience that much richer. We’re able to know each other as people rather than only as classmates because even if you try — and I have — it’s near impossible to avoid running into people on our small campus. You either see them in Val, studying in the same buildings or yes, in your residence hall.
Students at Amherst don’t just have one dorm. We live in a single room, but our life is spread throughout all the dorm buildings. In my sophomore year, I used to play D&D in the Stearns Library even though I lived in Seelye. In fact, none of my group lived in Stearns. But it had a nice table, good windows and enough space for us all. Seelye, on the other hand, had no furniture in the entire common room. You couldn’t do anything there. Similarly, students from all around campus regularly go to Moore to use the ping-pong table, Greenway and Chapman to use the kitchens and Porter to use the sunroom.
In these excursions out of our own dorms, we end up building connections with people that we otherwise wouldn’t see. While playing pool, an acquaintance from class might pass by and become a friend. And I’ve had someone — a student who did not live in Chapman — invite me to share a fresh-cooked meal with them when I walked by the Chapman kitchen on my way to my room.
Before the pandemic, we took advantage of these resources without knowing anyone living nearby. Since we were able to scan in anywhere, we didn’t need to. And even if we did know someone, we didn’t need to ask them to let us in. Restricting keycard access makes this all impossible.
In a normal year, our ability to use residential amenities all across campus can mitigate even a horrible dorm lottery slot. That’s what my co-columnist and I did when we were crammed into a converted single in Seelye’s attic our second year. (Seeing Double lore: one potential name for the column was “Close Quarters” because of that horrible room.) We would walk across the street to use the water fountain in Garman or go next door to use the laundry machines in Hitchcock when ours were full. And if we ever needed a common room — a real one, with furniture — we could go to another building.
For other students, the stakes are higher: the inability to access a kitchen at all hours of the day might be debilitating for students with dietary restrictions. If we want on-campus life to be equitable, then ResLife’s placement process shouldn’t decide the amenities we can access.
But worst of all, restricting our dorm access makes students less safe. Our ability to quickly duck into the closest available dorm protects us from unexpected weather, creepy people and potentially dangerous situations. Imagine that a student walking back from town notices someone following them late at night. Instead of needing to walk to their own dorm, which could be as far away as Humphries, Chapman or the Hill, they can walk right to Hitchcock, scan in and rest assured that they can’t be followed. Students are frequently cat-called and harried on Route 9 — do we want to close off our option to take refuge in Mayo Smith while walking to Seligman from Val?
I have a similar story of my own. Returning to Amherst from Smith near the beginning of my time here, I reached into my pocket to grab my ID only to realize that my wallet was nowhere to be found. I didn’t have many friends on campus yet, and the people I contacted didn’t respond. It was late enough that I couldn’t see anyone around, so I sat down on the steps and waited. For about 15 minutes, I didn’t see a single soul. Eventually I caught a glimpse of someone walking towards Williston. I ran over as fast as I could, caught them before they disappeared, and asked them to scan me into Stearns.
Thankfully, I was able to get in that night. But if my savior hadn’t been able to scan into any dorm building, who knows how long I might have waited. I could have called ACPD, but I was scared: I was obviously drunk and underage. (Not to mention that calling the police isn’t an option for all students.) With a few modifications — winter instead of fall, 4 a.m. instead of 2 a.m., very drunk instead of a little drunk — this story becomes positively scary. Had it been cold out, I could’ve died.
If other students can just let us in, how much does universal dorm access matter? Well, other students aren’t always around to help. When they are, do we really want to inculcate a culture of allowing anyone vaguely college-aged into any dorm building? Preventing us from scanning in everywhere is a great way to do just that.
Now that the administration has clarified that we will be allowed to visit other dorms next semester, Covid-19 justifications for restricting our keycard access cease to make sense. The virus can spread just as easily when we’re let in as when we scan ourselves. Allowing us to visit but not giving us keycard access essentially means that less connected students are able to access fewer amenities. And it makes us less safe by restricting our ability to enter dorms when we need to.
A more dangerous justification floated by the administration is that “residence halls are people’s homes” and not “public spaces,” according to an email from Dean of Students Liz Agosto. She goes on to say that the administration receives “reports all of the time of individuals who do not live in a specific hall” causing harm there.
Setting aside the fact that any student dedicated enough can get into any dorm without keycard access, this rationale punishes us all for the actions of a few. And as I said before, every dorm is every students’ home. At a small residential college where crucial amenities are spread around campus, that’s how it has to work.
I don’t know if the administration will continue their keycard access policy, but I do know that they shouldn’t. To strengthen our community and improve campus safety, ResLife needs to let us access our homes — all of them.