by Nina M. Riccio MA’09
By day, the soaring, timbered ceiling of the 42 Bellarmine Road Commons is a study area, a lounge for the students who live in this residence hall to watch TV or play a little piano.
But come Saturday night, the space is transformed into a sea of beanbag chairs, funky lamps, comfy couches, and mismatched mugs. The smell of coffee percolates throughout the room, student artwork covers the walls, and music can be heard above the din of hundreds of voices.
South Side Café on Fairfield’s campus is the newest and funkiest coffee bar in town, and it’s also one of the most popular. On opening night in October, it drew 140 students. Five weeks later, the place was humming with well over 200 — this despite the fact that South Side is tucked away on the far edge of campus (a campus shuttle runs at regular intervals).
“I love that it’s such a relaxed space to hang out, and it’s great that there’s somewhere to be that doesn’t include alcohol,” says Camile Gomes ’14, a chemistry and music management major from Bridgeport who has frequented the café on a number of occasions. “The Open Mic by Nina M. Riccio MA’09 poetry music Food & camaraderie where students hang out on a saturday night night was really fun, watching to see who volunteered to get up and recite poetry or sing. It’s cool to think there’s talent sitting right beside you.”
“It hit us that what we needed was a destination so students could gather in a relaxing, fun space that didn’t include alcohol,” explained Deirdre Bennett, assistant director of Student Affairs Communications. It was Bennett, along with Caroline Fain, program assistant in the Dean of Students’ Office, who proposed the coffee house idea to the Office of Residence Life after attending a workshop on binge drinking among college students.
“There’s no question that alternate late-night programming can diminish the binge drinking that tends to happen on weekends, and a lot of students are just looking for a cool place to hang out at night,” Bennett said.
Alcohol-free programming — such as Salsa Night, the film series, First Friday in Barone — has existed at Fairfield for years, “but these tend to be events,” as opposed to established and ongoing programs, noted Kamala Kiem, director of Student Programs and Leadership Development.
Kiem tapped Eric Lynch ’14, a politics major who has been active in first-year focused programs, to hire his own team of students to manage the operations of the new café.
A team of five students gathers weekly to discuss programming, purchasing, and any problems that have come up. At 8:45 p.m. each Saturday, they get to work pulling beanbag chairs, board games, and kitchen essentials out of storage. By 10 p.m., when students start trickling in, the transformation is complete.
One night this past fall, they rented a couple of fire pits and provided all comers with the makings for s’mores.
Other events have included Spoken-Word Poetry and Open Mic Night, pottery painting, live music, and Stuff-a-Stag Night (think Builda- Bear with antlers). A series of rotating chefs provides a simple, inexpensive menu, and coffee, tea, and soda are always free.
“I met a lot of people around the firepit one night, and came a couple of other times to hear friends who were playing keyboard and guitar,” says Nicholas Frega ’16, a politics and religious studies major from Southington, Conn. “Everyone likes to sit on the Yogibos (bean bag chairs) and the café is really relaxing — plus, it’s free and it got us all out of the residence hall.”
Lynch agrees the space was needed. “There’s no denying that the social norm on campus involves drinking, though that’s certainly not unique to Fairfield,” he said. “Students come to college expecting a party culture experience, and sometimes it gets out of hand.”
Recovery House: A Safe Space for Students
Sometime around his junior year in high school, Chris ’15 realized his penchant for partying, fueled by alcohol and other drugs, was getting out of control. Although he continued to do well in school, he finally reached the point of admitting to his father that he needed help.
These days, Chris (not his real name) has been sober for more than two years. He came to Fairfield as a transfer student, and now has the distinction of being the first resident of the University’s Recovery House, an off-campus housing unit opened this year to provide a safe, sober, residential space for students in recovery.
“Before we opened Recovery House, students in recovery from alcohol and drugs typically commuted from home or from a residential sober-living facility. Returning to a campus residence hall with students who drink or use drugs was a recipe for relapse,” explained Dr. Susan Birge, director of Counseling & Psychological Services. Fairfield wanted these students to have the full college experience — minus the triggers that might jeopardize their healthy lifestyle.
Fairfield’s dedication to helping students stay sober puts the University on the short list of just 17 colleges and universities in the Association of Recovery Schools, whose mission is the expansion of programs that help recovering students achieve success in both education and recovery. The University has long had counseling services, mentoring and a 12-step program, and a dedicated lounge to support students in recovery.
Residents have to sign a contract agreeing to attend 12-step meetings, keep the rules of the house, and submit to random urine tests. A house manager lives on the premises. Right now, Recovery House is for male students only, but the University hopes to someday have a similar space for women.
“Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to foster the success of these students … all students?” Dr. Birge asked. “I think it’s a very progressive, mission-driven, Jesuit approach. These young men have struggled profoundly and we say ‘welcome.’ There’s no shame or embarrassment. And after all, these are students we want to stay at Fairfield. They are wonderful young adults who have made bad choices, but they’ve come through it and have grown because of it.”
Chris has mentored other students, and he’s very grateful to Fairfield for helping him when he needed it. “Fairfield has gone above and beyond, helping me not just in recovery but as a college student, in dealing with balance,” he said. “I had expectations coming here, and my experience has far exceeded those expectations. I’m very grateful.”