Emmett Lockwood has lived in the Open House Living Learning Community (LLC) in Phillips Residence Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years, first as a resident and now as the community’s House Fellow. House Fellows, a term for what is commonly known as a resident assistant, provide an essential role in university dorms — enforcing policy and building community. There are approximately 200 House Fellows across campus.
When Lockwood was making his college decision, the Open House community presence solidified his choice. Open House provides inclusive housing, spaces and special programming for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and is one of 11 LLCs within UW Housing.
“Open House is honestly what drew me to UW-Madison,” Lockwood said. “I think there is no other community like this in the country, in terms of having a space for students to explore their identity while also being at college. I did not come into college worrying about having a transphobic roommate.”
Early in his first-year, while other students were finalizing their plans to live in off-campus apartments or houses the following year, Lockwood was concerned about the accessibility of off-campus living, the Madison housing market and the stability of signing a legal contract with people he had only known for a matter of weeks.
Over the past two years, UW-Madison has seen two of its largest classes in university history. Further, increasing enrollment of affluent and out of state students, and the privatization of the Madison housing market, has led to an unaffordable luxury apartment market in Madison, according to a 2020 study from UW-Madison’s geography department.
Being a House Fellow provides a dorm room — often a single — on campus free of charge, a meal plan and a stipend for hours on call. Knowing the then-current Open House House Fellow was leaving the position, Lockwood decided to apply.
“I thought it was honestly mind-boggling how first-years were coming in and choosing the people who they wanted to live with for the next year in October,” Lockwood said. “I thought, as a student, I don't want to have to deal with the logistics of signing a lease right now.”
Housing crisis impacts House Fellow role
Last year, approximately 380 individuals applied for a House Fellow position, and this year the number almost doubled with 639 students applying for the position, according to statistics from Brendon Dybdahl, director of marketing for the university’s Division of Housing. 75% of House Fellows during the 2021-22 academic year decided to keep their positions, when normally, only half of each year’s House Fellows remain, according to Dybdahl. This left only 73 open positions this year, he said.
Sutton Kreutzfeldt is one of many first-year students who applied for the House Fellow position but was rejected. While it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint why the demand and retention for the position increased this year, Kreutzfeldt cited the Madison housing crisis as a motivating factor in applying.
“There was very limited other housing in Madison, so I just thought the House Fellow position would be a good option to have,” Kreutzfeldt said. “I looked at a lot of other housing options, and they were very expensive, very limited. Everything was either sold out or just way out of my price range.”
Difficulties with the position, a dealbreaker for some
Although the House Fellow turnover rate has been low in recent years according to Dybdahl, some House Fellows still decided to leave the job. Colleen Wall started college with the goal of having only $5,000 in debt, and the House Fellow position stood out as an opportunity to make money and save on housing and food, she said.
Wall spent her junior year as a House Fellow in Witte Residence Hall. Although she said weekends were stressful and difficult at times, she described feeling supported by her supervisors and bonded with her residents. However, due to medical reasons, Wall requested a change to the Lakeshore community, as the Southeast community noise on weekends and lack of sleep negatively impacted her health.
Wall was a House Fellow in Adams Residence Hall last semester but decided to leave at the end of the semester.
“I think the reward for me changed when I was in Witte from the pure idea of getting housing and food to really enjoying my interaction with the residents,” Wall said. “When I went to Lakeshore, I wasn't getting that. I was doing so much extra to reach out and try to form these connections, and I wasn't getting anything in return.”
Adams Residence Hall houses a higher concentration of upperclassmen and single rooms, so Wall found her residents were more independent with less need for her help or support. Further, Wall found the policies she was asked to enforce in Adams were too strict and intense.
“My supervisor [in Adams] was very strict about everything, and I just didn't see the need for it,” Wall said. “My supervisors in Witte focused more on safety and individual students' success in their academic life, rather than [in Adams] which seem[s] to just want to drill down on every policy even if individual circumstances didn't make sense for it.”
Wall had greater difficulties with her supervisor in Adams, who once threatened termination due to a cheerleading schedule that coincided with House Fellow position meetings, according to Wall. She decided to leave during the semester for many of these reasons, but also to live with friends during her last semester of college.
“I think threatening a student that's already under a ton of stress with losing a job because of something that was an honest mistake or an accident or was out of their hands was an unfortunate [choice] for the management,” Wall said.
Pressures and rewards with the job
Dominic Zappia, a House Fellow in the International LLC in Adams Residence Hall, said while he really enjoys his job and the perks associated with the position, he would have to find housing mid-year in an increasingly difficult market to navigate if he were to lose the position.
“As I've been doing the job, I'm very aware that if I don't meet expectations, if I don't complete [my tasks], then I don't know where I'm going to live because the price [of housing] is so high,” Zappia said. “That doesn't mean that we're being exploited to do a bunch of work, but there is kind of that pressure there because of the positionality of the job.”
While there are difficulties and challenges with the position, both Lockwood and Zappia provide an essential role in the dorms. Lockwood aids in the transition from high school to college and supports identity formation for his residents in Open House. Zappia helps international students transition to living in a new country.
“I joke that most people, when they are struggling with mental health issues, get a therapy dog — and housing gave me 38 residents. It’s amazing having students who come to you,” Lockwood said. “I want students to walk away from Open House feeling like they have an ownership and a place on this campus, and it’s rewarding to see students do that … I love this space on campus.”
“It's really rewarding and really fulfilling to have the position that I have because I get to welcome a lot of international students from very, very diverse backgrounds to our campus and be a resource for them,” Zappia added. “It's a responsibility and one that I really don't take lightly.”
Noe Goldhaber is the college news editor and former copy chief for the Daily Cardinal. She is a statistics major and has reported on a wide range of campus issues. Follow her on Twitter at @noegoldhaber.