The sweet digs at Cerro Coso’s student apartments in Mammoth.
Until a month ago, I’d never head of the South Gateway Student Apartments (SGSA), more commonly known as the Cerro Coso dorm. When I did hear about the dorm, and when I started asking around about it, the most frequent response I got was, “Don’t they have a problem there with the kids partying too hard?” I’ve never heard of a dorm that doesn’t have this ‘problem,’ but I decided to do a little research to learn whether the rumor was fact or fiction, and how bad the ‘problem’ might actually be.
A brief introduction to the SGSA: opened in 2008, this $8.5 million project was funded by the Mammoth Lakes Foundation (MLF), an organization created by Dave McCoy in the hopes of bringing “facilities that exhilarate the mind” to Mammoth. The dorm offers students 11 studio and 24 shared one bedroom units, with studios renting for $900 per month and shared one bedrooms for $750 per month, utilities included. For these prices, which aren’t exactly cheap, SGSA also offers amenities like a community room with a fireplace, jumbo flat screen TV, pool and ping pong table; a state-of-the-art weight room; computer lab; and an outdoor courtyard with grills, a bonfire pit, and a bocce court.
At present, 36 students currently reside in the dorm, although it has the capacity for 59. Some students come from as far away as New York, and some, according to SGSA’s Community Manager had never been to Mammoth before they settled on Cerro Coso. That so many of the students aren’t from Mammoth or the surrounding communities is considered a success by MLF Executive Director Maya Weinhart: “Recruiting students from outside of the area gives students a cool opportunity to live in Mammoth,” she said, “and it allows the college to expand its course offerings.”
Currently Cerro Coso offers about 20% of its courses via iTV, with instructors rotating between Mammoth and Bishop, and about 52 classes, including all classes necessary for general education, on the ground.
Cerro Coso isn’t the first community college to invest in a dorm with the mentality, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ A 2009 LA Times article profiling the dorm reported that SGSA is just “the latest in a new wave of student housing at community colleges, as the commuter culture at such schools gives way to a more traditional experience.” Given the rising cost of college tuition, more and more students are choosing 2 year schools like Cerro Coso, and transferring after to complete their 4 years at state universities. This is a particularly popular approach in California, according to the Times article: the 2.8 million students attending the state’s 110 commuter colleges compose about a quarter of all 2 year college students in the country.
It’s no surprise this particular dorm is such a draw, given the setting. Most rooms have an incredible view of the Sherwins, and students are understandably excited to live in a town where the slopes are only a 10 minute drive away. The dorm building itself is pretty cushy, too. My memories of dorm life include clanking radiators, iron-frame beds with vinyl-covered mattresses, fluorescent lighting, non-functioning outlets and shared bathrooms. SGSA is positively heaven by comparison, with energy-efficient rooms, natural-lit rooms, full-sized beds, personal refrigerators, private bathrooms, and even balconies.
So what could be the downside of SGSA dorm living? For one, the price. Former resident Jessy Althaus left after one semester in 2009 “because it’s cheaper to live in other places.” She now rents an apartment in town with her boyfriend for $450-$550 plus utilities. The expense of the dorm also attracted a particular crowd, Althaus said: students with the mentality, “daddy’s going to pay for it.”
If students this year have the same mentality, I didn’t hear about it; the students I spoke with were uniformly looking forward to finding winter work on the Mountain and in town to offset the cost of tuition and room and board.
Then there’s the drug and alcohol problem, if it actually is a problem. To find out about it, I went to the source, cornering a group of students in the SGSA parking lot and asking their honest opinion. In exchange for their candor they declined to give their names. But it quickly became clear that they wanted
to talk less about the ‘problem’ than about the strict policies that nipped the ‘problem’ in the bud. As one student put it, “I feel like I’m in high school, not in college. I feel like my parents are here, but worse.” Another student added, “I got in trouble for just having an empty beer can. It’s not like we’re sitting there raging in a room. But you can get written up just for suspicion.”
When asked if any students had gotten into serious trouble, even been hospitalized, the group looked genuinely shocked. “No one’ s been taken to the hospital,” they said. “No one’s crazy.” But the strict drug and alcohol policy is making some of these students reconsider continuing their stay in the dorms. “No one’s going to stick around for 2 years,” one student said.
When I asked Janine, the Community Director, about the drug and alcohol policy, she agreed, “We’re very strict. Stuff happens of course, but we’re very firm about it.” The dorm policy is 3 strikes, you’re out. Each drug or alcohol infraction comes with community service hours, a strategy she explained helps students “learn there are consequences for your actions.” She added, “I’d like to think it’s a safe environment for everyone. There’s always a handful of rowdy students, but we do our best.”
That these students are complaining seems like a fairly good sign to me. In my own dorm experience, it was a problem when the drug and alcohol policy was treated like a joke—when my friends found it too easy to outfox security. Lax security permitted my hall-mate to become one of the most profitable drug dealers on campus, while another friend got so sauced at a dorm party that he went to the ER for alcohol poisoning.
I can’t pretend I didn’t do my share of partying and rule-breaking, just as the SGSA students are undoubtedly doing, whether they do it in the dorm or in town. But I have to say also that I don’t see a problem with it, as long as the students don’t endanger themselves and others.
MLF President and CEO Evan Russell agreed with me: “These are kids who are 18-20 years old,” he said. “Most of them are away from home for the first time. They have to experiment a little bit; they’re testing the water.” That said, “We have an obligation to run as safe a facility as possible.” But Russell believes in “punishment on a case-by-case basis. There’s silly things they do, and there are things that are health and safety issues. I hope that the R.A.’s use good judgment when it comes to what really needs to be made a point of.” Russell’s overall take on a possible drug and alcohol problem at Cerro Coso was pragmatic. “There’s stuff you have to go through to make better choices,” he said of these students.
In my opinion, the students at Cerro Coso would have to be superhuman to resist the temptations not only of college life, but of Mammoth itself, which in many ways resembles a college party town. Residents of legal age here have enough trouble making good decisions—why should we expect 18-20 year olds to be any different?
In the end, from what I heard, SGSA is far from a rager dorm. The students seem to be a genuinely sweet bunch, and in spite of their griping about the strict policies, most students I spoke with reported an overall positive experience at the dorm. “It’s so much better than just moving to town after you graduate high school,” one student explained; “you can meet people your own age here.” Former resident Jesse Althaus agreed. “It’s a good way to get into town if you don’t know anyone,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about leases or security deposits, either.”
The Community Director also said it’s her aim to foster a sense of community, citing movie nights, hikes in the Lakes Basin, Monday night football, hot spring outings, and a weekly dinner catered by the R.A.’s, as a handful of examples of activities intended to help students get to know each other and the community.
If there was one final student complaint with the dorm, it was the complaint of most Mammoth men: with a 4:1 male:female ratio, SGSA suffers from a serious lack of romantic prospects. But, one male student noted hopefully, “This winter the UCLA and USC ski teams will be coming to town. They’ll be bringing the girls up.”