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#OTGYpsi: EMU addresses student housing with $200 million "Welcome Home 2025" project


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: Here's how EMU is working to update all campus housing by 2025

EMU Student Government

EMU Welcome Home 2025 Plan

EMU Welcome Home 2025 Project Timeline


Cathy Shafran: You're listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community. We bring you On the Ground Ypsi, in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. And today, our focus is on a project intended to make on-campus EMU students feel like they're coming home each year to live in the dorms. Today, I am joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on a project called "Welcome Home 2025." Rylee, thanks so much for joining us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: What can you tell us about the back story on this Welcome Home 2025 effort at EMU that's featured in the article by Sarah Rigg?

Rylee Barnsdale: So, some of Eastern's housing--actually, the buildings--date back to the 1970s, and the most recent renovation that happened to a residence hall on campus was actually in 2018. So, a lot of these buildings are, you know, they're looking for, you know, some updates of some kind. I was actually a student back in 2016, and I was living on campus. And I definitely can relate to some of the struggles that I know some students are facing now. You know, with Wi-Fi or heating and cooling, things like that. So, with this project, it's intended to revamp those buildings that haven't really seen a lot of those updates and also add some other options, as far as housing goes, for students around campus.

Cathy Shafran: And it's a pretty large undertaking, this Welcome Home 2025 effort.

Rylee Barnsdale: That's right. Every residence hall on campus, aside from the one that was most recently renovated, is going to be seeing a makeover throughout this coming year of 2024 and scheduled to be finished by 2025.

Cathy Shafran: Great undertaking, indeed. I see that it's a $200 million project from 2022 to 2025, constructing and renovating.

Rylee Barnsdale: That's right. And also, there's updates to the other forms of housing around campus because it's not just dormitories at Eastern. There's also student apartments as well as family housing. You know, there are students that are here that are living with their families. So, that brings up a question of equity and making sure that everyone that's living on campus has a quality home to go back to once they're finished with their classes.

Cathy Shafran: In the report in Concentrate Media this week, Sarah Rigg talked extensively with student body president Auryon Azar, and he's joining us right now in the studio. Thanks for being with us, Auryon.

Auryon Azar: Thanks for having me, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: As I was reading the rough draft of Sarah's story, I heard some of your concerns as you were living on campus, actually helped formulate a plan for the university to go forward with this renovation and housing construction program. What were the concerns that you were having as a student?

Auryon Azar: Yeah. Just to give a bit of context, I'm in Student Government. The university really tried to involve Student Government in the process. And one of the things that they did when they were trying to test out potential partners in the project was having them lay out plan proposals. So, the plan proposal was already there in a rough form. But what they tried to do is get students involved and try and modify that plan. And the student voice really mattered. To answer your question, in my case, my dorm, the one that I'm currently living in, happens to be just above the boiler room. And so, the good news is that I have heated floors. The bad news is that it can get quite hot in there. And it's not good.

Cathy Shafran: The example that you gave Sarah was coming home from a class in the middle of winter and having to turn the fans on in your room?

Auryon Azar: Yup. That's pretty much exactly what's happened. And, you know, if I'm gone for the weekend, and I come back and, you know, if I've accidentally left the windows closed. Yeah. Like, 88, 89.

Cathy Shafran: And Internet was also an issue for you. Wi-Fi.

Auryon Azar: It is. So, the boiler happens to be in the very corner of the residence hall, which is where my apartment is. And so, sometimes, it's difficult for the Internet connection to stick all the time. You know, in my living room, I'll have, like, better Internet connection. I go to my bedroom, which is in the very corner of the building, and then it's really slow.

Cathy Shafran: So, these were just some of the issues that were brought up during the planning stages--the listening stages.

Auryon Azar: Yeah. And, you know, I have friends that, in other residence halls around campus, that had to be relocated because of health and safety issues that were in the original apartments that they were put in.

Cathy Shafran: And can you give me an example of the health and safety issues?

Auryon Azar: I can't be super specific because I don't want to speak to something I'm not 100% confident on. But I believe that there was like a mold issue in one of the apartments, and it was a it was an apartment that housed four people. So, all four of those people had to move to a different apartment in the middle of the school year, interrupting their studies and their focus.

Cathy Shafran: So, it became clear to everyone that upgrades needed to happen.

Auryon Azar: Absolutely.

Cathy Shafran: And so, after a long period of listening, they came together and said, "Okay, here's the plan." And they named it Welcome Home 2025. Since you're part of the process as a student government representative, are you familiar with the plan and what's going on?

Auryon Azar: Yeah, I am. From my understanding, the university is trying to renovate every building except for one--or every residence hall, except for one, which was recently renovated--which includes the apartment building that I'm in, which I believe was constructed in the 1970s.

Cathy Shafran: Which one is that?

Auryon Azar: Munson Hall.

Cathy Shafran: Mm hmm.

Auryon Azar: So, it's part of the Brown/Munson complex right by Halle Library. But the university is trying to upgrade all of this housing and give it the things that it doesn't have right now: adequate heating and cooling, better upgraded Wi-Fi, and really a space that students can call home.

Cathy Shafran: In addition to the heating, cooling, and the Wi-Fi Internet issues, what else have they addressed?

Auryon Azar: They're trying to change spaces, so that they have more common spaces. You know, there were a lot of residence halls that didn't have common spaces where students could connect with one another, which was really important during COVID when everyone was isolated. So, they're changing the structure of some of these buildings to make sure that there are spaces where students can connect with other students.

Cathy Shafran: I noticed that they actually have begun the renovation project.

Auryon Azar: They have. They're already working on Downing Hall, which is where I lived in my first two years on Eastern. And they've also started to build the Lakeview Apartments, which is right next to the Student Center. And I believe they're working on the apartment complex right next to the football field.

Cathy Shafran: Have you had a chance to visit Downing and see what the changes feel like?

Auryon Azar: Yeah. I walked past Downing most days, and we sort of just watched the construction take place from the outside. But I think the biggest observation that I could make by looking at Downing and by the Lakeview Apartments that are getting put up is that Gilbane is moving really quickly.

Cathy Shafran: And Gilbane is the....

Auryon Azar: Development company.

Cathy Shafran: The development company. And when you say they're moving very quickly, how quickly are you seeing it?

Auryon Azar: They're moving on track. So, initially, when I heard Welcome Home 2025, we're going to upgrade every single residence hall in three years. I was extremely skeptical just because development companies. But they're moving very quickly. It seems like every day we come out and new progress is being made on the construction of a building or its renovation.

Cathy Shafran: How important is it for students to have better environment in the spaces that they're living in?

Auryon Azar: It's critical. To use myself as an example, you know, my mom's side of the family is in Arizona. My dad's side of the family is in Washington State, in Seattle. I don't have a home base here beyond my own dorm. And so, not only is it incredibly important to have a place that you can call home, one that you can decorate and really call your own. But, as I also brought up, it also plays a role in your academic success. During COVID, our dorms were our classrooms. We would have to tune in to Zoom meetings and listen to our professors in those spaces.

Cathy Shafran: And so, you think it had an impact on your learning?

Auryon Azar: It did. I think I would say that if the dorms were adequately renovated and just the places that we were living in were a little bit nicer, a little bit homier, it would have made the learning process a little bit easier. I mean, COVID was isolating for everyone, and especially students who didn't really know how to navigate the process and then, you know, the students that came after my year who were coming on to Eastern's campus after COVID had hit. So, they weren't able to build any connections on campus.

Cathy Shafran: And so, when you look at this project, do you think the name is rightly named Welcome Home?

Auryon Azar: I think so. Yeah, I think it pretty accurately summarizes what EMU needs and what it's going to receive from the project.

Cathy Shafran: And that is what--if you were to put it in a nutshell, what this will mean for the university once it's complete?

Auryon Azar: What it means for the university is that the students that come to Eastern wanting a sense of belonging and pride will get it when they previously may not have.

Cathy Shafran: So, a better image and a better learning environment.

Auryon Azar: Absolutely.

Cathy Shafran: And healthier.

Auryon Azar: Oh, definitely. I would like to be in a temperate apartment.

Cathy Shafran: And so, in essence, your voice that you began sharing a couple of years ago, your voice has been heard.

Auryon Azar: It has. And all Student Government is trying to do now is make sure that we're remaining engaged in the process of raising issues when they come up. We're sometimes a little hesitant of privatization projects just because of the ones that have occurred in the past and the student experience. We remain faithful to the deal. We just want to make sure that we're trying to hold the university and Gilbane as accountable as possible.

Cathy Shafran: Wrapping it up, are you seeing what you dreamed of?

Auryon Azar: I am. I'm very cautiously optimistic. I'm happy with the way things are going, but I still have a duty to the students. So, we're going to try and keep the university accountable. But it's looking good so far.

Cathy Shafran: EMU student body president Auryon Azar and Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, I want to thank both of you so much for joining us. Thank you.

Auryon Azar: Thank you.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public Radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU dot org.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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