As students check into their new home in Cedar Hall on the Whatcom Community College campus, they may not immediately recognize their environment is built around the philosophy of Universal Design, but their experience will be touched by the deeply thoughtful elements of creating spaces that are equitable, hospitable, flexible, simple and intuitive. 

Designed by Ankrom Moison and built by Tiger Construction, Cedar Hall began moving in its first residents in July. The project is the culmination of a vision to provide students with on-campus housing, intentional programming to help students adjust and thrive in a college environment, and to increase the opportunities for all students to obtain housing with fewer barriers and be more active in their community. The $28 million LEED-certified structure will provide housing to 233 students, when operating at full capacity, along with offices for Residence Life staff.

Residence Life began at Whatcom Community College in 2009, with 18 international students, in an effort to lower the barriers for students related to language and culture, credit and financial history, and finding housing in Bellingham’s tight rental market. 

Mo Whalen and Terri Thayer welcome students to new WCC on-campus residence, Cedar Hall. Photo credit: Ida Faolotoi, Cedar Hall

Very quickly, staff realized that domestic students face similar barriers and began to offer housing to both groups through cooperative agreements with apartment complexes near the school. The administration understood that benefit for one targeted group was universally a benefit to all students. 

Terri Thayer, Director of Community Standards and Residence Life, and Mo Whalen, Residence Life Manager, provided insights into the planning, naming, and opening of Cedar Hall amid COVID-19 and how programming by Residence Advisors eases the transition for students who live there. 

Thayer, a member of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation, was one of the people involved in deciding on Cedar Hall for the residence hall’s name. Western Red Cedar is native to Whatcom County and important in Salish culture; in the local Salish tribes, the cedar tree was used extensively in all its parts and is associated with healing, generosity and protection. Other names were considered, but the positive symbolism of the cedar kept surfacing as a welcoming symbol the staff hoped to create for the students who will call Cedar Hall home. 

Residence Life Administrative Assistant Chelsea Smiley greets students and staff from the first floor reception desk. Photo credit: Mo Whalen

The Lummi Blackhawk Singers offered a blessing before the building opened to student occupancy. 

“The name Cedar Hall helps ground us in this work and recognize the equity perspective in all the things we do,” says Thayer. “It also helps us understand that native people were here before on this land and are still here now as our neighbors.”

Staff structure and programming is offered to students to build community and create an inclusive and safe space for students who live in Cedar Hall. There are seven live-in Resident Advisors as well as a live-in Residence Life Coordinator. 

Once COVID-19 safety precautions allow it, common spaces are available for creating meals, studying, lounging and game playing, as well as small and large gathering spaces. Resident Advisors plan community building activities and support residents to help them be active members of their community and to identify and moderate any difficulties students might have. 

The Lummi Blackhawk Singers offered a blessing before the building opened to student occupancy. Photo credit: Terri Thayer

The rooms have been designed as suites and, in keeping with universal design, offer flexibility in how people choose to live. There are four-bed/two-bath suites, two-bed/one-bath suites, studios and one-bedroom suites. 

An application fee is only $50 and a non-refundable $250 cleaning fee and refundable $250 deposit keep initial costs down for all students. Students must be enrolled in at least five credits per quarter to qualify for housing in Cedar Hall, but rent reduction is in place for students who must or choose to take a quarter off to travel home. One such allowance per year is permitted.

Of course, the current COVID-19 restrictions have created unique challenges for occupying the new building. For fall quarter, it will operate at 50% occupancy, which is 112 students. 

At the time of this writing, with WCC’s fall quarter all online, it’s difficult to determine if there will be full demand for rooms or a waitlist. Students are expected to self-quarantine (shelter in place) for 14 days after initially moving into the hall. They are permitted to go to work and a few limited necessary locations (grocery stores, doctors, etc.) but discouraged from interacting with other residents until self-quarantine is over. Even then, masks and social distancing are expected. 

Staff and students at Cedar Hall follow strict, careful procedures to reduce COVID-19 infections. Photo credit: Carol Lo

Signage throughout the residence hall reminds students and staff of safety precautions. Only two people are permitted in the elevator at one time, with sanitizing stations throughout the building. Contract signing is typically a one-on-one interaction, with parents invited to attend if they arrive with their student. 

Cedar Hall smells new and is a far cry from the 1960s-style dormitories on many campuses. The warm, welcoming environment isn’t diminished by the safety protocols—in fact, the staff efforts to foster benefits of a shared community and create an environment that is equitable, flexible and thoughtful reflect the original vision. 

“Cedar Hall is safe and inclusive for residents and staff,” says Thayer. “We hope it will be part of a solution that brings peace, healing and harmony to a culture and a people during these turbulent times.”

For more information about Cedar Hall, including pricing and the application process, please visit www.whatcom.edu/campus-life/housing-information.

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