When Bradley Berklich ’22 learned he wouldn’t be able to return to Kenyon last fall, he understood the pandemic safety measures guiding the College’s  decision. Still, he felt sad and a little jealous of the first-years and sophomores who were invited back to Gambier. Even with new social distancing requirements, they could at least be in the same place, in person, together.

So when Giulia Cancro ’22 invited Berklich to live with four other Kenyon students in Yonkers, New York, in “a really nice half-finished house” her parents were remodeling, he was a hard “yes.” What 20-year-old wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend a semester in a Prohibition-era house almost in Manhattan, for just $300 a month, even if it was during a global pandemic, 550 miles away from campus?

“We were totally trying to replicate the Kenyon vibe.” 

Bradley Berklich ’22 on living in a “hype house” this past fall, with Kenyon friends

These Kenyon “hype houses”— named after a house in Los Angeles where a group of TikTok-famous personalities decided to live together and, of course, film themselves — were popping up all over the country. In fact, the Yonkers crew heard about so many others that housemate Skyler Lesser-­Roy ’22 began tracking them on a corkboard map. By the end of the fall, she’d thumbtacked 51 enclaves, from Honolulu to Salt Lake City to Andover, Maine.

Berklich and his friends tried to fill the void of not being on campus by doing quintessential Kenyon things: They lived, studied and ate together, negotiated shared bathroom rules, and hung out mostly with other Kenyon students who were living in hype house clusters around New York City. And they talked, incessantly, about Kenyon.

“There was a lot of pining for the physical buildings, for the architecture of the place,” Berklich remembered. “I missed sitting in a 200-year-old, wood-paneled room where presidents and poets have sat. The buildings are such an integral part of Kenyon.” 

Fostering interaction

Community is Kenyon’s special sauce. It’s why students choose to enroll, why professors choose to settle in Gambier and why Kenyon is among about 20 U.S. colleges where 99 percent of students, or more, live on campus all four years. The residential experience helps Kenyon fulfill its mission to promote “rich collaborations and lifelong connections.”

The College was literally built to create community. Ever since Old Kenyon opened its doors in 1829, every building that’s been added to campus has had the same goal: “They needed to foster interaction,” said Tom Stamp ’73, College historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana. “It’s by design.” 

On January 26, that design entered a new epoch.

“We’re here to announce some very exciting news,” said President Sean Decatur in a video shared widely on social media, speaking through a purple mask that matched his purple tie as he stood on the spot where Philander Chase decreed into lore, “This will do.”  There was a pulse of optimism in his voice as he made the big announcement: An anonymous donor had given Kenyon $100 million — the largest gift in the history of the College — to build three new residence halls on South Campus, right on that very spot. 

“The residential experience, gathering people together from all over the country and all over the world to learn together on this hill in Gambier is essential to who we are, essential to what Kenyon is all about,” Decatur explained, as the camera panned over the snow-dusted campus. The generosity of the gift, which would add living space for more than 300 students, reaffirmed how essential the residential experience is to Kenyon and offered hope during a strange time. 

Fortunately, Kenyon’s record-breaking gift could not have come at a more critical time. “It allows us to double down on the importance of the residential nature of our education,” said Vice President for Advancement Colleen Garland, but it enables so much more — freeing up other operating and fundraising dollars for student-focused priorities like increasing financial aid and high-impact experiences, in and out of the classroom. She added: “It shows the world that what we do at Kenyon is worthy of such a substantial investment.” 

The gift offered new optimism that, after a very un-Kenyon-like year, the College might not just bounce back after the pandemic, but actually bounce forward. 

An immersive community

Building an immersive community of inquisitive minds has been a Kenyon priority since the very beginning. Philander Chase’s primary goal was to find a spot that was as remote as possible to keep his students removed from “the vice and dissipation of urban life.” Even so, those first students had much the same residential experience students do today. 

“The idea that a college should re-create the sense of family in the purity of nature was very much the thing at the time,” said Stamp. The difference was, the first first-years were crammed into tiny log cabins, sleeping in beds so short that their toes allegedly poked out between the logs into the rain and snow. 

However, everything changed in 1829 when the whole operation moved into just-finished Old Kenyon. With its ornamental spires, 4-foot-thick walls and bull’s-eye windows, the monumental manse would eventually be recognized as the earliest “Collegiate Gothic” building in the country. But Chase had loftier hopes for Kenyon’s centerpiece. He believed that the architecture itself would inspire his students. In a letter to benefactor Lord Gambier, he described the “high and beautiful” steeple: “As you approach it, thoughts of the past and future force themselves on your mind.”

Unlike England’s closed and inward-focused university designs, Kenyon’s campus, as it grew, remained open and outward-looking on purpose, as if the orientation of the physical space might influence how students approached their education. The commitment to construct academic buildings on a relatively modest footprint made certain that students, however insulated on the Hill, were always aware of the world around them. “As you’re walking on Middle Path,” noted Stamp, “you can always look out between the buildings and see into the woods beyond the College.”

When the College needed more classroom space and transformed former faculty homes on College Park Street into academic buildings, it did not alter their fundamental structures. Instead, living rooms morphed into seminar rooms and porches became gathering spots for students and faculty members to continue their classroom conversations. New academic buildings like Keithley House and the English Cottage were constructed to look and feel just like those nearly 200-year-old houses.  

Architects even added structural elements intended to, quite literally, bring students together. For instance, the hallways in Norton and Lewis were divided into wings to encourage students to meet and bond in smaller, more manageable groups. In McBride and Mather, the halls were divided into short sections that turned 45 degrees or so into a different section, as a means to create “neighborhoods” in the building. (Students think they were built that way to be “riot proof.” Said Stamp: “Nope.”)

Those design elements mirror the students’ psychosocial development and growth. “Networking and creating social ties are essential parts of American colleges,” noted Carla Yanni, a Rutgers professor of architecture and author of “Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.” 

That’s why most first-and second-year students live in double rooms, to help hallmates form crucial new relationships. Juniors and seniors experience more independence in suites that mimic apartments they’ll likely move into after graduation. But the social ties they form from years of togetherness should follow them into the real world. Those social connections play such a vital role in the college experience, in fact, that Yanni is concerned the success of virtual learning during the pandemic could persuade some students — especially students with higher financial need — to choose that route as a more affordable option. “They might get a college degree,” she said, “but a peer who lives on campus, who meets other ambitious and smart people, will have infinitely more opportunities and career success.”

While Kenyon has always committed to building consequential relationships among students, the residence structures where those bonds really take hold haven’t exactly stood the test of time. One trustee put a finer point on it — “they’re our Achilles’ heel.” The stature and style of the buildings were surely a big part of the reason that Forbes magazine and a longtime architecture critic at The New Yorker (Paul Goldberger P’04), once named Kenyon one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. Inside, though, they’re “in dire need of updating,” explained Garland. 

Last year, the College hired a consulting firm to conduct a study of student housing needs, and here’s what students said they wanted: Residences on South Campus that are closer to their classes and Peirce Dining Hall; more apartment-style residences for juniors and seniors; new construction that is environmentally responsible; and on-site laundry. 

As sophomore Ever Croffoot-Suede ’23 put it, the only laundry facility in the first-year quad where she is a community advisor is located in Gund Residence Hall. “It’s a few machines, and to get there from Norton I have to walk down a path and around.” It’s a walk she’s made, laundry basket in hand, during rain, snow and thunderstorms —  if she needed to access the laundry room for any reason, she had to brave the elements. “Having laundry in Norton would be incredible. I can’t overstate this: Incredible.”

Students also asked for renovations to the old dorms, such as new flooring, reconfigured bathrooms and a fresh coat of paint. 

These concerns were heard, and thanks to an anonymous donor’s “once in a generation” gift, the College plans to build three new South Campus residence halls that will be ADA-compliant and built to a high environmental standard. Construction on the new buildings will begin as soon as work on the new West Quad is wrapped and classes end in the spring of 2023, but renovations and repairs to the older residence halls are scheduled to start as soon as this summer. 

A specific intimacy

Kenyon’s brick and mortar has always been a catalyst. The buildings offer access to more than dorm rooms and classrooms: they’re where the connections are formed, experiences take hold and memories are set. Many alumni pinpoint their Kenyon memories to a specific room, a particular spot, a special space: Sitting on the steps of Rosse Hall late at night, after everywhere else had closed. Hanging out in a Bullseye with one of the best views of campus. Cramming way too many people into the Caples elevator.

Susan Berger ’85, for instance, will never forget when she met two of the women who remain her closest friends today. During their first week at Kenyon they bonded while chilling Molson Goldens in streams of cold water from the bathroom sinks on the second floor of Gund. “I can picture us in that place like it was yesterday,” said Berger, who is a leader within a nonprofit in Cleveland. 

Susan Farrell ’74, a retired bank executive from Pittsburgh, and her Kenyon friends still refer to themselves as the D-8s, after their apartment number in the New Apartments. Skip Osborne ’76, retired from the restaurant business in California, can connect every member of his current friend group with the place he met them on campus — “in the green room at Hill Theater,” “in the doorway of one of the old Peirce Tower suites,” “on a rain-sodden Middle Path during a gray February afternoon” and “in The Shoppes, the old coffee shop that used to be in the basement of Peirce, talking for hours over 3.2 beer and fried mushrooms.”  

These happenstance connections are entirely by grand design. Roommates are handpicked and are more often matched by differences than similarities to broaden students’ worldviews. Each hallway deliberately houses a diverse mix of students from varied backgrounds. A key first step in this process is ensuring these diverse backgrounds are represented on campus, a task aided by scholarships and financial aid. 

When Anne Morrissy ’01, a Chicago writer, and Joy Phaphouvaninh ’01, who directs the study-abroad program at the University of Illinois, met in Upper Lewis Hall on their first day at Kenyon, they couldn’t have been more different. Phaphouvaninh’s family had escaped Laos during the Vietnam war and was brought by a Mennonite church to Ohio, where Joy was born. Still, they connected instantly. “It was like finding your lifelong friend after too many lifetimes apart,” Morrissy said.    

Kenyon’s residence halls have at least one common rooms, and often two ore more. Anne B. Chamberlin ’76, a retired librarian from Havertown, Pennsylvania, remembered lounging with her husband-to-be Joel “Boltz” Turner ’76 in the Watson Common Room, where “‘old-established’ senior couples went to watch weekend TV.”  Liz Van Lenten ’81, a Chicago real estate agent, called the Caples lobby a “conversation pit” where she regularly watched “everyone’s late-night comings and goings.” Martha Holley-Miers ’00, a director of fundraising at a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, credited her deep, longtime friendship with Samantha Grover Aguayo ’00, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, to the night “we stayed up late moving from couch to couch in the common room of Bushnell.” 

Even alumnus-to-be Berklich of “Kenyon on the Hudson” joked that the way Gund was built, he couldn’t enter or leave his dorm without walking through the common room: “People were constantly congregating there. It was practically impossible not to stop and talk.”  

The buildings themselves help develop a sense of interconnectedness and community. “They’re meant to facilitate those unplanned meetings with other students and with faculty,” said Stamp. “Those informal moments might actually be the most important ones when you’re in college.” 

Because the village and the College were so small, noted Osborne, “you got a rounder sense of just about everybody. You got to know many sides of many people. You saw them at their worst and at their best.”

As a student, Alisoun Bertsch ’97 spent so much time hiking in the woods near campus that she became known as the girl who walked everywhere, on and off the Hill, all the time. When she came back for her reunion years later, she was taking a walk and a former professor and his wife hailed her from their porch: “Alisoun, welcome back! We would know your walk anywhere. Come have breakfast with us!”   

“It’s such a specific intimacy — ‘I know your walk,’” reminisced Bertsch, who now lives in Athens, Pennsylvania. She considers that moment a metaphor for the College’s culture of connection — how the intimacy that develops so quickly and intensely from simply sharing the same space affects students in a deep way. “No one can keep up any artifice when you eat, sleep and study together,” she said. “You have to be your authentic self at Kenyon.”  

More than a year into the pandemic, there are inklings on campus that the intimacy is starting to build again. 

Even though he’s still basically working out of two offices in two separate buildings (“It’s like ‘Groundhog Day’”), Decatur is looking ahead as much as possible, and looking forward — to hopefully bringing all students back together in the fall, to having faculty and staff return from their Zoom offices at home, to inviting parents and alumni to visit the Hill again. Most of all, he can’t wait to just randomly run into people again on campus.

“At a moment where our understanding of the importance of learning together in community is perhaps more deeply felt than any time ever,”  he said, “it’s incredibly exciting to reaffirm the importance of the residential experience as part of Kenyon, and look forward to a future in which we will again gather and learn together — on this campus.”  

Vicki Glembocki is an editorial consultant and award-winning journalist based just north of Atlanta.

What a $100 million gift does (and does not) mean for Kenyon

Architectural mock-up

First, the obvious, direct impact:

• With this gift and the addition of three new residence halls on South Campus, we can boldly reaffirm our commitment to the core residential experience.

• Plus, the net gain of 199 beds creates the swing space required for badly needed renovations across campus, especially to first-year residences.

Next, the not-so-obvious but game-changing impact:

• With critical housing needs addressed, we can focus our fundraising efforts on scholarships and financial aid — ensuring that Kenyon’s residence halls and classrooms  are open to talented students from every walk of life and economic background.

• With the support of 17,947 alumni, parents and friends who pushed past the original $300 million campaign goal five months early, we can raise our sights and continue the campaign, as Our Path Forward to the Bicentennial, with a new cumulative goal of $500 million to conclude in June of 2024. 

Finally, the needs that remain: 

• What the $100 million does not do is directly offset any of the College’s nearly $163 million operating budget. Those dollars come from tuition, payout from the endowment, and donations to the Kenyon Fund, Kenyon Parents Fund and other annual funds. Because almost $44 million of the operating budget goes to financial aid, annual fund gifts are the most immediate way to support students.

• Annual fund gifts remain a key campaign goal, at approximately $6.7 million a year. They also provide the flexibility needed to navigate crises like COVID-19, which caused an estimated revenue loss of $32 million this fiscal year (a number also unaffected by the $100 million)

— Molly Vogel ’00

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