Off Campus Coalition

All Will Be Received: Off-Campus Life at Hillsdale

Written by Dietrich Balsbaugh

“There is someone right here who knows you more than you do, who is making room on the couch, who is fixing a meal, who is putting on your favorite record, who is listening intently to what you have to say, who is standing there with you… This is where you belong.”Sufjan Stevens, Michigan

Recently the University of Notre Dame changed its residency policy, requiring all students to live on campus through their junior year. The school has recently remodeled several new student centers and expanded a few dorms to make extra room on campus. For a university as big as Notre Dame (8,600 undergrad, 12,300 overall), this policy makes a good deal of sense. Four thousand college undergraduates living in houses around the South Bend area seems a tad impractical. However, at Hillsdale College, the off-campus community remains a significant feature of both the life of the school and the town itself. While all freshmen are required to live in the dormitories, after that year they have the option to apply for off-campus housing and rent from several homeowners in and around the college area.

Life off-campus has been a significant force for the life of the school for many years now. Traditions are born at off-campus houses that have lasted for decades. Professors who once attended Hillsdale lived in houses where current students now live. It’s an impressive network of legends. All of the houses students rent are christened by names which are handed down as students graduate and new students move in. There’s Graceland, named for Paul Simon’s song, or The Igloo, named for how cold the residents kept their house. Each house has a character that has grown and developed over the years as students come and go, passing on responsibility to one another.

As a freshman living in the dorms, I quickly started to hear about different houses. The Sandlot? The Jungle? My curiosity was finally fulfilled when a few seniors invited me over to their house—affectionately named Brooklyn—for a poetry reading. I walked in and was immediately offered tea as one of the seniors turned to me and said warmly, “Welcome to Hillsdale!” Needless to say I was hooked. I came back to Brooklyn as often as I could my freshman year.

Before I talk about what makes this off-campus experience of Hillsdale so unique, a brief note: As everyone knows, a college career is fundamentally a limited period of time. Most students spend anywhere from four to six years as undergraduates at a typical college before moving on to a full-time career. So it is a tricky subject to try and talk about belonging at Hillsdale. Students will come as freshman and live deliberately here, but in just four short years, they suddenly do not belong here anymore. It is time to graduate. It’s a confusing thing, the passing of time. But I digress.

Students at Hillsdale are keenly aware of their limited time here, and this knowledge fills student life, and particularly the off-campus culture, with a unique urgency. The students who live in homes know that in a certain sense, they are practicing for the future. For a brief, four-year span, a group of young men and women practice building community. The off-campus houses support the broader student culture by providing a touch of realism to life at Hillsdale. In each house is an upperclassman who urgently wants to befriend a freshman, because those relationships are vital to the life of the school.

Hillsdale’s student body is remarkably close knit, another benefit of a small school, but such a unity is not achieved by happenstance. The students had to decide to build that among themselves. The many off-campus houses act to help the student body continue to belong at the school. They cook food, read poetry, sing songs, throw parties, and most importantly, give you a place where you can practice belonging, for a little while. Someday other students will live in our dorms and houses, but the culture of the school is driven by the connection between students who have come before, students who are here now, and students yet to come.

If you visit, stop by! All are welcome at my house, named Bjornheim. Just ask around, and someone will point you in the right direction. We almost always have tea and cookies to spare.

Dietrich BalsbaughDietrich Balsbaugh, ’20, studies English and mathematics. He loves dancing of any kind and playing in any sort of water, particularly if it involves skipping rocks. If you see him on campus, he’s usually talking about fractals, writing, or tossing a frisbee. He doesn’t mind, so be sure to stop and ask him what he’s thinking about.

Published in November 2019