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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Can We Make this Campus a Little Less Depressing, Please?

Hamilton students love nothing more than being outside. Every April, students exit the confines of their dorms and academic buildings to experience the joys of the sun. The sun has been quite the stranger for nearly half a year, last visiting campus in early November. As soon as the temperature rises to the 50s and 60s, suddenly walking across campus is a social experience. During the day, it is a struggle to find available chairs outside. On weekend nights, walks across campus are accompanied by the sound of music, laughter, and conversation. How can we extend this joy to our coldest months?

We only have about three months of good weather on the Hill during the academic year. Most of our time is spent indoors with little sunlight, and students generally complain of poor mental health especially during the darkest and coldest winter months. While the climate is certainly only one of many factors that contribute to students’ poor mental health here, we should still consider it as a problem and identify what can be done to mitigate it.

Of course, the Counseling Center’s “Happy Lamps” and weighted blankets are a good individualized option for students seeking support, among all the other services they offer. Before the pandemic, spaces like the Tolles Pavilion, Bristol Center, and Bundy Café were frequently used as alternative indoor social spaces. But these do little to address the day-to-day slog (and slush) of living on campus during the winter.

We may have a few options. This is by no means an exhaustive list; perhaps these ideas can serve as a springboard for more, better ones. Ultimately, the aim of these proposals is to reduce the social isolation and dreariness of winter life at Hamilton. These infrastructural improvements could foster a more positive physical environment on our campus that has the potential to draw people together and connect them to their communities.

First, let’s consider the appearance of the campus. When there is a few feet of snow on the ground, piled up from multiple storms and turned a putrid grayish-black color, the campus feels quite drab, especially on the dark side with the brutalist concrete architecture. Adding some color may be helpful. These dark side buildings have the advantage of also being blank canvases. What if students could use them that way? Imagine: murals on every dark side building, painted or chalked by both current students and alumni from years prior. On the light side, Hamilton could build a public art wall any student can contribute to, something that Pitzer College has had for many years. Murals, too, could be placed inside some of the larger light side buildings and on the outer walls of buildings like the Burke Library and the Science Center.

One of the saddest casualties of the winter is Hamilton’s beautiful greenery. A campus once flourishing on all sides with vibrant greens is now encased in rigid, dark lines fruitlessly reaching toward the sky. There are, however, a number of potential (partial) solutions to this problem. One thing Hamilton could do is plant more evergreen trees and shrubbery across the campus, especially in areas where students traffic frequently. Rather than looking at desolate branches, students will see untouched snow on deep greens. While there is no way the summer can be replicated outdoors during the winter, we can have a bit of a taste indoors. The Science Center atrium, for example, already includes multiple trees that make the area one of the most beautiful indoors spaces on the Hill. To varying degrees, Hamilton could take similar approaches to dorm common rooms, KJ atrium, Burke Library first floor, Sadove Student Center lobby, dark side FoJo, and other areas with space for anything from potted plants to larger ferns and small trees.

Another issue, which directly causes seasonal depression, is the lack of light. While the Happy Lamps are a good individual solution, they have limited use. On the dark side, dorms have large windows to let in light; most light side students do not share this luxury. To enable students to spend more time in the sunlight, Hamilton could create more spaces like the Sadove Sun Porch and the Wertimer first floor common room, which are surrounded on almost all sides by large windows. Natural light is not the only necessity, however. It is rare that dorm rooms and common areas are as bright as portrayed in images on the college website. With improved lighting in dorms, especially lighting that can be adjusted in both direction and intensity, students can create spaces they feel more comfortable and happy in.

These are only a few options, and it is important to reiterate that the mental health crises experienced by students are only in small part caused by these environmental factors. A comprehensive mental health approach requires also taking a close look at academics, activities, jobs, health services, institutional discrimination, campus culture, administrative incentives for students, and more. Hopefully, though, a more colorful, greener, brighter campus will contribute to improving our well-being during the months mental health becomes the predominant concern for students.

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