U co-ops built on sense of family

by Emma Carew

When Ola Szuba moved to the Como Student Community Cooperative from Poland, she said she watched a lot of American television because she didn’t speak English.

Szuba said television, in addition to English as a second language classes at Hamline University, helped her learn quickly.

The University offers family housing at two complexes near campus primarily for graduate students with families, many of whom are international students. Some residents in the communities said they feel lucky to be living in a community where the culture is rich and diverse.

Como Student Community Cooperative and Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative are independently run corporations. The University owns both complexes, but the students govern and manage the cooperatives themselves, Coordinator of Housing Properties Fred Frogner said.

A 12-member board of directors and a president run the Como complex, he said, and they hire a manager and other workers needed to operate the building.

“It’s a great opportunity for families to live in a place where everyone has the same goals,” general manager at the Como site Jerry Erickson said. “Everyone is trying to get through school.”

Waiting in line

Erickson said the waiting list at the Como complex has gone down considerably in the past few years.

In September 2001, there were approximately 350 people on the waiting list, resident services employee Richard Shields said.

Now there are about 160 families on the waiting list, he said, and the estimated wait time is 12 to 14 months.

Erickson speculated that low interest rates for mortgages in recent years may be encouraging families to purchase homes as opposed to renting.

Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative President Bernardo Cramer said the Commonwealth Terrace community has openings for two- and three-bedroom units, and there is a waiting list only for single-bedroom apartments, for which the community recently expanded eligibility to single graduate students.

The University has looked into expanding its family housing, but building costs and land are expensive, and families might not be able to afford rent in a new complex, Frogner said.

The Student Senate is looking to revise the housing policy on all campuses in the University system, said Duluth student Josh Breyfogle, the Duluth Student Senate chairman.

The project is still in its early stages, he said, but the Student Senate is hoping to survey students soon about needs with regard to housing.

One thing the senate is interested in learning is whether students believe there is a high demand for family housing on the Duluth, Morris and Crookston campuses or for an expansion of family housing on the Twin Cities campus, Breyfogle said.

International neighbors

Many residents of the Como complex said they value the diversity in their community most.

Pre-nursing graduate student Maria Honebrink said she is able to share her culture, as well as learn from her neighbors.

When she first moved from Ecuador three years ago, the transition “was really hard,” she said.

After learning the new language, culture and traditions of America, she said, “Now I am enjoying living here, especially in Minnesota. I think people here are really nice.”

Honebrink said she appreciates events like the Como co-op’s Thanksgiving potluck.

“(The events) help to introduce your family to American culture,” she said.

About 80 residents gathered Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving together at the Como community.

Residents brought side dishes to share, some of which were dishes from their home countries, said Marcy Driver, who works with the community activities committee in the Como community.

Commonwealth Terrace offers students an international neighborhood as well.

There are about 430 families living at the Commonwealth community, Cramer said, about 75 percent of which are international.

Cramer estimates there are between 30 and 40 nationalities represented in the community.

In the Commonwealth community, the programs committee is working on instituting a program similar to the Small World Coffee Hour on campus, he said.

Students will get to come to the community, meet international students and interact with one another, Cramer said.

There are also international dialogue groups, where residents can have discussions with people from different cultures, he said.

Some old, some new

Theater arts graduate student Wade Hollingshaus said the Como community placed him and his wife on a waiting list for about seven months when they first applied for family housing four years ago.

During their time on the waiting list, their family lived with friends in Crystal and he commuted to school, he said.

“It was hard,” he said. “There was always a feeling of distance between me and my study. Being away, it doesn’t feel like you’re involved in your studies as much.”

Hollingshaus said he likes that there are many young families in the community.

“My children feel like they have a community of their own,” he said. “There’s also a lot of support for my wife, who spends most of her time here.”

He said there are many people in the community to help with child care and emergencies.

For example, when Hollingshaus’ youngest child was born, a neighbor was able to stay with the other two children, he said.

Hollingshaus said many of the places he has lived in his life have been very diverse.

“I think I kind of take (the diversity of the community) for granted,” he said. “It’s not abnormal for me; but when I do think about it, I value it.”

Whitney Allen, whose husband is a graduate student in the Carlson School of Management, said they moved into the Como community in August and were on the waiting list for only a few months.

“I’ve lived in student housing before,” she said, “and this has probably been my favorite place to live.”

Allen said she loves having playgrounds for her children to play on and being a part of a diverse living environment.

“I know that we’re the minority here in our corridor as far as being from the States,” she said. “The kids they play with on the playgrounds are from all over the States (and from) different countries.”

Allen said it is difficult to have her husband away at school so much.

“When he is here, we just have quality time together,” she said.

Although they are new to the community, she said, the transition hasn’t been as tough as she had expected.

“The people here just took us in right away,” Allen said. “The transition was very easy.”

Family housing history

The University first developed family housing in the early 1950s, following World War II, Frogner said.

The site at the Commonwealth co-op originally was used to house military families, he said. Through the late 1960s, the property was owned and managed by the University.

In the early 1970s, the University built the first phase of the Como site, Frogner said, and during that time a group of students from Commonwealth Terrace complex approached the University and requested to institute the cooperative system in the family housing complex.

The Commonwealth co-op managed the Como site in its first year, then turned that responsibility over to the residents and the system has been in place since, Frogner said.

“The cooperative system we have here is unique to the entire nation,” Erickson said. “No other college or university has a system where the residents develop and live by the policies that they make.”