As JMU begins its fall 2021 semester, it welcomes the class of 2025 — the largest entry class in the last decade. With 4,750 first-year students, campus now has more new Dukes than ever before. Past enrollment data shows a steady increase in high school students applying and being admitted and accepted by JMU. As the university enters a new academic year, on-campus facilities will have to adapt to a larger student body and lower employment rates in dining and ORL staff due to the pandemic.
Kevin Meaney, the director of JMU’s Office of Residence Life (ORL), addressed how JMU organizes housing for every student living on campus. Although this year’s first-year class was the largest it’s ever been, Meaney said he didn’t believe it to be a big concern.
Meaney said ORL works together with admissions to make sure there are enough beds for the incoming class before it gives housing contracts to continuing students. If the class of 2026, for example, has a first-year class of 6,700 students — the maximum capacity of beds in JMU residence halls — then continuing students wouldn’t be able to live on campus. Meaney said this system ensures no one is cramped or left without a room.
Newly enrolled students are increasing at a rate of 4.14% — At that rate, JMU would have enough housing to last until 2031. Meaney noted that, saying because “the class grows only slightly each year,” “[JMU has] enough inventory currently to accommodate those increases” for the foreseeable future.
Meaney said JMU understands the growth changes over time and is working ahead to accommodate the next largest class it might acquire in the future.
One contribution, though smaller, to the students living on campus this year are the sophomores. Chloe Banaszak, a sophomore and double major in theatre and psychology, said one reason some sophomores chose to live on campus instead of living off was the potential for some kind of normal campus living after COVID-19 left many students at home last year. Last academic year, with its restrictions on and complications around what campus residents could do, created an unorthodox dorm experience. Now, with such a large first-year class, Banaszak said she’s feeling a little cramped while living on campus.
“Last year, sizes were already down, and so we were used to a way smaller campus as freshmen,” Banaszak said. “I had gotten so used to last year’s size that now I feel like cattle on campus, walking through all the traffic.”
As a sophomore, Banaszak said she and some of her friends live on Greek Row — still on campus, but out of the way along Newman Lake.
Meaney said ORL doesn’t track how many sophomores specifically requested to live on campus again this year.
Meaney explained that ORL data only observes entering first years and continuing JMU students. Sophomores, juniors and seniors are all lumped into the sum of data that consists of “continuing students.” Meaney said 1,500 students who were enrolled last year signed up to live on campus for this academic year, meaning that a little more than 30% of all on-campus residents this year aren’t first-year students.
Sophomore sports management major Annie Rodgers said the effects of the larger first-year class resulted in “longer lines, especially at Starbucks.” First year sociology major Sofia Lambis said she’s noticed this surge in long lines and packed dining facilities.
“The lines are annoying and stressful,” Lambis said. “But I feel that they’ll calm down.”
Last school year, JMU enforced a no-guest residence hall policy, social distancing guidelines and a mask mandate, all in addition to moving most classes to an online-only format. The result for the class of 2024 was a year filled with rules and regulations. Now, going into their sophomore years, the class of 2024 has been told again to mask up.
Sophomore psychology major AnaLeah Overbey said JMU’s methods of implementing the mask mandate were lackluster.
“They should have either said from the beginning that we would be wearing masks or have not said anything at all to get our hopes up,” Overbey said.
Banaszak said she hopes this first-year class will learn to follow campus rules.
“We lived on campus during a time filled with rules and regulations that this incoming class did not,” Banaszak said. “They don’t have the respect yet for lines and waiting, and while it will take them time to figure that out, it seems like not a lot has changed.”
Sophomore hospitality major Dabney Leverty said she just wants the first-year students to “respect campus more” and to share that respect with everyone.
“They’re just going to have to have a wake-up call,” Leverty said. “It’s not high school anymore.”
Dining staff shortage
In addition to the increase in the overall student body, dining halls have slowed down food service per student due to a shortage in dining employees across campus, as seen in JMU signage displayed around dining facilities.
Even with the news of labor shortages, first-year English major Bella Bledzki said she’s “very optimistic that the increased buildups will create more of a community.”
Bledzki said the lines would allow for more chances to make friends and get to know new people. First-year kinesiology major Kayley Mitchell also expressed hope about the situation, saying everyone has been “so understanding” of what’s going on.
Mitchell and Bledzki both said that even though JMU Dining is short-staffed for now, they don’t mind the lines and that they appreciate the extra work the staff is putting in for them. For them, they said, it’s part of the college environment they’ve been wanting to experience at JMU.
As the 2021 fall semester begins, still not everything is as it was prior to the spring semester of 2020. The first-year class has to continue wearing masks from their previous schooling to JMU — among other factors — but many said they understood the importance of the mask mandate and other similar policies, like first-year health sciences major Catalina Hidayat.
The resounding feeling is that this class is ready to hear new perspectives, work on understanding the transition to college life and come together to get through the pandemic with the shortage of staff and the mask mandate.
“You have to think about the safety of others and not just yourself,” Hidayat said. “I have a feeling that we’re all gonna get through this. We feel strong.”