Impact of residential life

The impact of residential life at Peddie

On a cool October evening, freshmen girls in Masters Dormitory gathered in the common room that connects the north and south ends of the building. Staring at the television, pints of frozen yogurt strewn between them, the girls watched as the third and final presidential debate unfolded. These students, many of whom had known each other just a few short weeks, unknowingly came together to witness a pivotal moment in history. This shared experience between new friends, one that may be reflected on years from now, is a quintessential part of the Peddie residential experience. Away from the comfort of home and family, students learn of major global events, navigate personal issues, form life-long bonds and take part in long-standing traditions. Moments like these, between classes, homework and late-night study sessions, are the heartbeat of boarding life at Peddie. 

A brick and mortar beginning 

The first building used to house students at Peddie, then known as the New Jersey Classical and Scientific Institute, was constructed in 1869. Simply known as the Institute, in 1905 the building was named Wilson Hall in honor of dedicated trustee Rev. Dr. William V. Wilson. The building was a five-story, mixed-use space consisting of classrooms, teacher suites, a kitchen and laundry area, the steward’s office, a gymnasium and residential rooms for 150 boarding students. The rooms were completely furnished, save for linens, and the building was referred to at the time as the “finest school building in the state” by the Hightstown Gazette. 

As Peddie evolved from the New Jersey Classical and Scientific Institute to the Peddie Institute (1872) and finally to Peddie School (1923), the residential priorities evolved as well. In 1898, Peddie’s ninth and longest-serving headmaster, Roger W. Swetland, began his tenure. Over the next 36 years, Swetland led the construction of eight major campus buildings, including Coleman House (1912), Trask House (1914), Avery House (1920) and Austen Colgate Hall (1928). Those dorms remain popular housing choices for students today due to their old-world charm, central staircase atriums and (now non-operational) fireplaces. 

Peddie’s tenth headmaster, Wilbour E. Saunders, continued upon his predecessor’s momentum. During his administration (1935-1949), Saunders purchased a number of houses that were used as both dormitories and faculty homes including McCutchen House, Wyckoff House, Swetland House and Langford House. Saunders can also be credited for creating the faculty-student advising system, in which each dorm master was responsible for the academic and personal well-being of 10-12 students. 

The evolution of the residential student experience 

Knowing the advising system was a way for teachers to make a personal and lasting connection with each student, Peddie looked for ways in which peers could also be viewed as mentors and campus leaders. In the early 1980s, faculty members in Kerr Dormitory, built in 1976 and named after Peddie’s 12th headmaster, Albert L. Kerr, began to do just that. 

“At the time, Peddie had monitors, students responsible for checking other students in and out of the dorm, and keeping a general eye on them,” said William McMann, long-standing English faculty member and former director of residential life. “I wanted a system where kids had some responsibility beyond that and could serve as a bridge between faculty and students. That was really the beginning of the prefect program.”

Initially, certain students were asked to be prefects by their dorm supervisors. Bill McMann is credited with formalizing the process. With guidance from McMann and Sandy Tattersall, dean of students and head of residential life from 1983 until his retirement in 2012, students interested in the prefect program were asked to take part in a group interview with dorm faculty and existing prefects. Once selected, students participated in weekly training where they discussed issues relevant to residential students. It was not necessarily important that prefects were academic leaders, but it was essential that their peers respected them.

As the residential life program began to evolve, faculty recognized the need for day students to have peer mentors and role models. Former director of counseling services Carol Hotchkiss took this opportunity to create the Peer Leadership program, an academic course and mentor program for seniors that focused on addressing adolescent issues in a more formalized way. Selected by faculty, Peer Leaders worked together with freshmen to help ease their transition to Peddie.

Knowing the importance of the conversations led by Peer Leaders, Kate Higgins, former faculty member and director of residential life, built upon the foundation laid by Hotchkiss. Together with Tattersall, she created the Community Life program, an academic course aimed at ninth and tenth-grade students, both boarding and day. 

“We wanted to strengthen the health curriculum, introduce students to community expectations and have conversations about morals and values,” said Higgins. “Structuring the Community Life course in this way allowed us to have those conversations with the underclassmen in a safe and healthy environment.” 

Today, those conversations carry over from Community Life to the dormitories, both in casual conversation with students and during planned Thursday Night Dorm Bonding meetings. Introduced in 2014, dorm bonding allows faculty the opportunity to set aside one evening a week to have meaningful conversations with students about health and wellness, leadership and ethics and life skills. Discussions include everything from how to tie a bowtie or write a check to the importance of sleep and proper nutrition.

“We also have a ton of fun,” said Daria Kuyantseva ’19, a boarding student from Russia. “This year, Mrs. McClellan organized a ‘Cake Wars’ competition night where she brought already homemade cakes and all the toppings you could imagine: frosting, sprinkles, chocolate, candy … it was awesome! After we finished decorating, our cakes were judged. The best part was when we got to eat the final products!” 

Peddie also ensures day students are part of residential life on campus. Between regularly scheduled Saturday Night Activities, community service initiatives and monthly advisee dinners, day students are well integrated. 

“I was a little nervous coming to Peddie this year,” said Kavya Borra ’20, a freshman day student. “But it’s been such an incredible experience. I love coming back to campus on the weekends for Saturday Night Activities like going to the movies with friends.”
Of course, with more than 350 boarding students on campus, finding and training faculty to live and work in the dorms is imperative to the success of the students’ residential experience.

Faculty influence beyond the classroom 

According to The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), an organization that promotes awareness and understanding of boarding schools, 90 percent of boarding students report having high-quality faculty members, compared to 62 percent of private day and 51 percent of public school students. TABS also reports that students in boarding schools spend around nine hours per week with educators outside of the classroom, leading to higher levels of maturity, independence and critical thinking skills.

Peddie faculty, 90 percent of whom reside on campus, are ready and equipped to help guide students through their adolescent years, both in and out of the classroom. They encourage them to be open to new experiences and prepare them to be citizens of the world. Faculty members also enjoy deep connections with students, spirited banter and profound, thought-provoking conversations. 

“Our dorm faculty leadership is quite strong, and this has a tremendously positive impact on residential life,” said Catherine Rodrigue, associate head of school. “When we hire, we seek candidates who want to be immersed in a school community. We look for experience in activities like camp counseling, coaching and community service. In interviews with prospective faculty, we listen for candidates’ sense of humor, their adaptability and response to challenges and stress, and their interests or hobbies outside of their academic areas. Our faculty understand that

Peddie is much more than the classroom experience, and this is why Peddie faculty can be such great role models for Peddie students,” she said. 

Undeniably, life as a dormitory supervisor is a 24-hour a day job. In such an immersive environment, there are many teachable moments.
“It’s the moments you wouldn’t expect when the most thoughtful conversations emerge,” said Sarah Crider Venanzi, Ph.D., science teacher and dorm supervisor.

“Like when the girls all gather around the TV to watch “The Bachelor” or “The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” Out of those seemingly unassuming moments, that’s when discussions turn to how to conduct yourself or to body image and positivity,” she said.
History teacher and long-time Kerr dormitory supervisor, Erik Treese ’91, agreed. 

“I remember when Hurricane Sandy shut down the campus for an entire week. We had no power, no heat, but there were still kids here. That week I witnessed some of the most organic community bonding I have ever seen. Kids were spending time with people they may not have ordinarily, cleaning up campus, picking up branches. The community came together in the most unique and meaningful way,” he said.

In addition to focusing on their students, residential faculty also find themselves having to remind one another to focus on their own personal well-being.

“It’s a commitment,” said Allison Schaefer, Spanish teacher and dormitory supervisor in Masters South. 

“I love it, but it can be challenging at times. It’s all worth it, though, when I notice the growth in my students. One of my favorite memories from last year was when my girls planned a surprise birthday party for me. I was so touched, and their appreciation for what I do really showed.”

For faculty, part of living in a dormitory means understanding that kids are on a path towards independence, transitioning from adolescents to young adults right in front of them. 

“Peddie has found a nice balance of giving students both responsibility and autonomy, independence, yet meaningful structure,” said Ray Cabot, history teacher and assistant head for strategic planning. “Kids know the adults are connected to them and engaged in their experience, and faculty know when they are able to take a step back. We know our students well, and we know them particularly well because of the residential experience,” he said.

Marty Mooney, dean of students and residential life, agreed.

“Residential life is a well-aligned priority for the school,” he said. “There is an institutional commitment to both dorm programming and the creation of physical structures that enhance the sense of community that is unique to Peddie.”

That institutional commitment allows administrators to think long-term about the needs of those who reside on campus. In the early 2010s, a conversation began to take shape about the future of various buildings on campus and how Peddie can stand out in a challenging boarding school market. 

Reflecting on the past while looking to the future 

The last time Peddie constructed new dormitories, Mariboe and Caspersen, the year was 2000 and Thomas A. DeGray was head of school. A decade and a half later, Peddie broke ground on two state-of-the-art residence halls named in honor of John F. Green, fifteenth head of school, and for Trustee Robert M. Kaye ’54. Completed in the fall of 2016, Green and Kaye replaced Kerr Dormitory, which was razed shortly thereafter. 

J. Robert Hillier, the same architect who designed Green and Kaye, built Kerr. The 1970s contemporary style dorm is an ineradicable fixture in the memories of hundreds of alumni. Despite the lack of ornate, old world charm that other dorms on campus boast, Kerr’s personality came from the students and faculty who once resided there. Over the years, approximately three dozen faculty members and their families called Kerr home, half of whom still live on campus today. 

“All my great stories come from Kerr,” laughed Kenton Kirby ’99, who lived in Kerr North for all four years. “And all my favorite memories start with, ‘Well, we were bored in the dorm one day and …” 

Brian Hayes ’08, who lived in Kerr for five years beginning in eighth grade, agreed. “The carpets smelled, the windows were broken, the lights flickered. But, man, we were a family, and Kerr was home. We got through it together,” he said.

The discussion of replacing Kerr began years prior to its razing. Once the project was approved and Hillier was selected as the architect, a committee consisting of faculty and administrators was formed to provide input into the project.

“I think that was crucial,” said Venanzi. “Through conversations in this committee, and with student input, we realized what made the most sense in terms of convenience and space allocations. For example, small things like having laundry on every floor really makes a difference.”
The other consideration that emerged from the committee was the need for designated, flexible spaces for collaboration and community. As the education of Peddie students continues long after class hours end, larger meeting areas play an important role in the day-to-day lives of students, from informal study sessions to structured Thursday Night Dorm Bonding. 

“The community space was a huge win,” said Mooney. “We wanted it to feel as if you were walking into a living room, into a home. Bob Hillier and his team were able to create that feeling.”

Despite the various ages, layouts and sizes of dormitories on campus, wherever students find themselves living during their time at Peddie, the people around them make the experience extraordinary. 

“There’s power in a building, power in a dorm, power in the people who live there,” said Kirby ’99. “Twenty-plus years later, dorm life is still such a huge part of who I am. I hope that students who live on campus now and in the future have that same powerful feeling of home,” he said.