A few years after Mobile College was established, two dorms were built on campus – one for women, one for men. These provided housing for roughly 100 students, as Mobile College was mainly a commuter campus. The community was tight-knit, even as new living areas were built over the next 25 years.
But fast-forward to today and University of Mobile’s residential population accounts for almost 50 percent of the total enrollment.
Since 1998, the number of students living on campus has more than doubled. This is due partly to an aggressive out-of-area recruiting strategy and the addition of new living areas that offer more modern and personal amenities. But in the midst of these coordinated efforts lies an enhanced student living experience that has kept campus housing at or near capacity of 734 for several years.
Back in the Day
Before automated laundry systems and keyless dorm entry, dorm life was slightly different.
Jimmy Messer ’91 recalls his early days of writing roommate and room selections on chalkboards.
“It was real old-school,” Messer said. “We met each spring and let returning students and their roommates select the exact room they would live in the next year.”
As director of student development from 1998-2001, Messer was responsible for residential life, campus discipline, and summer operations for M-Fuge camps. Assisting him at the time were “dorm moms,” ladies who lived in the dorm apartments and befriended the students, checked for curfew, and cooked goodies for the dorm.
“The ‘dorm moms,’ who were usually retired women from local churches, oversaw each dorm,” Messer said. “They had a sub who came someweekends and other scheduled times to give them a break, but we also had some assistant coaches who lived on campus and helped monitor the students’ behavior.”
Messer’s own positive experience as an on-campus student compelled him to spend as much time with students as possible.
“As a staff member, I enjoyed getting to know the students,” Messer said. “I ate lunch in the cafeteria quite often, had an open-door policy and helped with intramurals sports.”
Vanessa Neely Wallace ’02 remembers her time on campus as being “special because of the relationships.” Those relationships eventually landed her in the role as director of Residential Life.
After an unfortunate accident derailed Wallace from pursuing medical school, she was approached by then–Director of Residential Life Sara Parker to consider becoming a “resident coordinator” in one of the dorms. Wallace obliged and joined UMobile as a full-time employee to invest in the lives of students. Soon after, she transitioned to director.
Significant changes followed. Plans for new dorms were started. Guidelines were developed to allow more male and female visitation opportunities, and lobby hours were extended. Prior to these changes, students were limited to visitation only a few times per semester.
“We wanted to provide more freedom for our students within appropriate boundaries,” says Wallace.
Two private-style dorms were built during Wallace’s tenure as director, from 2004 to 2009. In 2004, Samford Hall was completed with more than 100 beds and, at first, housed women in one wing and men in another. In 2006, Karlene Farmer Faulkner Hall was completed, housing over 150 women, and Samford became an all-men’s residence hall. These new dorms offered a unique, more modern experience than the typical community-style dorm, including private bathrooms, media room, and a full-service kitchen.
In 2009, the student affairs area underwent a major structural change. The areas of student leadership, campus ministries, and residential life were combined into one office to provide a comprehensive, unified approach to the on-campus experience. Now referred to as Campus Life, this department is responsible for housing placement, leadership and spiritual development, student activities, service opportunities, and the living experience.
The Director of Residential Life and Director of Campus Life would now work together as one unit in order to streamline all student activities and provide a cohesive on-campus experience. Additionally, Campus Life coordinators were established as full-time, live-in staff members that are responsible for the daily operations of their dorm, as well as an activity area of Campus Life. These areas include Campus Activities Board, Athletic Ministries, Campus Ministries, Intramural Sports, First Year Experience, and Publicity & Media.
Kris Nelson ’01, who served as the Director of Residential Life from 2009 – 2014, saw this approach not only increase the number of residents on campus, but also improve the camaraderie among staff and students.
“Our goal was to focus the entire residential staff on intentional influence,” Nelson said. “This approach connected with the student body because they realized that we cared about their success and well–being.”
Residential staff went beyond their job duties to intentionally invest in students and, as Nelson says, “care about the small details in their lives.”
Nelson, now vice president for facilities, remembers the balance of appropriate boundaries and freedom.
“We were slow to ‘write up’ or worry as much with ‘enforcing’ rules, but we never sacrificed who we are as an organization or a school,” Nelson said. “We spent more time being proactive and intentional about knowing the residents, attending sporting events, supporting the CPA, investing in our student’s lives. When you connect and invest in people, you earn trust and respect and can have lasting influence.”
The residential population continually increased and, in 2012, a state-of-the-art, apartment-style dorm called The Timbers was completed. This included a suite-style setup with a central living space, four private rooms, shared bathrooms, and kitchenette, with accommodations for 96 students.
Food options have expanded to include Ram Deli, Java City Coffee Shop, and Grille Works, in addition to “The Caf,” Ingram Cafeteria.
But numbers and physical improvements are only half of the story – UM has experienced a dramatic increase in on-campus student involvement through leadership development and service opportunities.
“We have more energy at events and a more connected campus,” said Nelson. “We also experienced an increase each year of students applying to be resident assistants and graduates applying to be campus life coordinators.”
Current Director for Residential Life Greg Johnson ’10 believes his time living on campus was defined by “the deep friendships” he made. Now, he strives to provide those same relational opportunities by incorporating an intense hiring process for residential assistants each year. These 26 RAs are given the role of “making the living experience the best it can be.”
“We believe the core of our on-campus experience is rooted in the quality of our RAs,” Johnson said. “We look to them to help provide an excellent customer service experience, build community on their halls, and look for discipleship opportunities among their peers.”
One of Wallace’s favorite memories was her relationship with Ben Hedrick ’12. Hedrick was a special-needs student with cerebral palsy who came to UM to pursue his dream of graduating college. Wallace coordinated multiple efforts to ensure Hedrick would have the same
on-campus experience as other students. This included a specially designed dorm room with an accessible shower, accessible walkways on campus, and accommodations that were made to ensure Hedrick’s service dog, Kirra, was able to stay with him.
“The fact that his mom trusted us to make it happen – that will forever be etched in my mind,” Wallace said.
Courtney Colbey McGehee ’12, who worked as a Campus Life coordinator from 2012 -2015, remembers the particularly hectic night before Move-in Day 2012.
Due to construction setbacks, the brand new Timbers apartments would not be ready for students to move in. Additionally, the area was still a construction zone, with machinery, gates, dirt, and equipment visible for new families that would be arriving on campus by morning. But that night before, under the direction of Nelson, the campus community came together to make it ready. Athletes who had already moved onto campus began moving the new furniture into the dorm. Student leaders cleaned rooms, and campus maintenance worked through the night moving equipment and cleaning the parking lot for cars to unload the next day.
“I was completely blown away by the generosity of everyone on campus working together to make the day successful,” McGehee said. “I remember, as I finally was able to climb into bed for a few hours before the next day, knowing that this place was special and that I was proud to be a Ram.
“Helping to build a community and a family was what I believed to be a part of my job, and that night was one of the greatest examples of community that I have ever experienced.”
Johnson, who has experienced the major residential growth since his time as a student, believes our best days are still ahead of us.
“I think our on-campus experience has only gotten better since I was an on-campus student,” Johnson said.
“I don’t think there is a better time to be a Ram, and I’m excited to help shape and create an excellent on-campus experience for current and future Rams for many years to come!”