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Popcorn and James Dean: A Peek Inside Student Residences


On the erasable message board next to the door in Alyssa Huang’s dorm suite, there are no messages.

Instead, there are tiny figures with intricately connected letters and numbers. Do they contain secret messages?

The unfamiliar figures, it turns out, are the structures of 20 essential amino acids that Huang, a sophomore, and her suitemates must memorize for a biology exam.

We are not inside your average dorm. The message board is in a suite at Benjamin W. Slivka Residence Hall, on the north end of campus, where several of the students (140 in all) are “BMEs and premeds,” says sophomore biomedical engineering and premed student Shonali Midha, Huang’s suitemate.

Slivka is one of 11 residential colleges on Northwestern’s campus, many of which have residents with majors or strong interests in a specific field. (A few of the colleges are multithematic.) Engineering sophomore Mitchell Samson is only partly joking when he says he chose to live at Slivka because “I wanted help with my homework.” The sophomore adds, “I think that shared circumstances bring about friendship.” Slivka students get together to work on problem sets or study for tests, sometimes in Lisa’s Cafe, a popular campus hangout on the first floor.

Following a lively conversation about student life at Northwestern in a first-floor conference room, Huang, Midha, Samson and fellow “Slivkan” Eric Lai, a McCormick junior, offer a quick tour of the dorm. As we head upstairs, one thing strikes a visitor as universal in student residences across generations, as well as across campus: the aroma of freshly popped popcorn, which fills the Slivka stairwell.

We stop briefly at a darkened lounge on the second floor with kitchenette, couches, big-screen TV, ping-pong and pool table. On this Monday evening, the lounge is deserted, except for a lone TV viewer.

The boys suggest we tour the girls’ suite instead of theirs, with anticipated tidiness in the feminine quarters the deciding factor. In the girls’ cozy common space are large posters featuring James Dean and the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt image of sailor kissing nurse on Victory over Japan Day in Times Square.

In Huang’s room (there are four singles and two doubles in the suite), the bed isn’t made, but the boys are amazed at the room’s overall neatness. (You can, it is pointed out, see the floor.)

On a high shelf is a Hello Kitty storage container and a huge plastic bag full of Cheerios. Under the bed is a tiny refrigerator (a popular dorm item) housing two apples, a container of organic reduced-fat milk, a few cartons of fruit punch and two bottles of pop.

A board on Huang’s door is covered with “cool words,” written by the girls in the suite, including kumquat, loquacious and obsequious. The words change regularly, says Huang.

The residential college has many social events, including barbecues and trips to plays and concerts, as well as speakers on various topics. According to Huang, chair of Slivka’s philanthropy and social committee, several residents were planning to join students from other residential colleges on a spring break trip to Louisiana to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

Later in the week, following a group interview at Jones Fine and Performing Arts Residential College, first-year theater major and resident Chris Eckels offers a look around, starting in the two-level great room, often used for student theater productions.

On Sunday nights in that airy space, movies alternate with student performances, says Eckels. “Those can be anything. So many talented people live here. The other night there was a girl who is a national champion jump-roper.”

In the basement are practice rooms and studios. A resident is playing her violin in one. In another, two dancers are warming up. One has cell phone to ear and head bent over leg, which is stretched up on the barre. The other is Eckels’ friend Kathy Lin, a sophomore in the Mathematical Methods in Social Sciences program and sociology double major from Singapore, who is in the Fusion Dance Company, the only hip-hop troupe on campus. She and Eckels hug.

There is also a painting studio, a cluttered prop and sets room, a darkroom and rooms with piano and keyboards. “You could come down here in the middle of the night and hear someone practicing,” says Eckels.

We walk up to the first floor suite he shares with guys in a mix of majors: theater, engineering, political science, radio/TV/film, music, chemistry, German. And there is James Dean again, this time in life-size cutout form in a hallway. Like popcorn, he has spanned the generations.

Time to go. Eckels is headed to 1835 Hinman, a nearby dorm where many students on south campus dine. It is 5:30 p.m. and the light is falling fast on this unseasonably mild day in February. The lake, the palest of blues, is fading into the horizon to the east, but at the dining hall, bright lights beckon.

Eckels, on campus not quite six months, is clearly happy to be here.

“We actually got a handwritten postcard welcoming us to Northwestern during New Student Week,” he recalls.

He seems still amazed by that small gesture as he waves goodbye.

— A.T.