Higher Ed Heat Wave

At colleges in regions unaccustomed to the extreme heat, students and employees try their best to stay cool.

July 19, 2013
American International College
Two students cool off during a May heat wave on a Slip 'n Slide set up by the American International College president.

If Mark Tardif had it his way, it would be 50 degrees outside year-round.

Tardif -- who grew up in Lewiston, Maine, and now works at Unity College -- was not prepared for the sweltering heat wave that has pushed temperatures in his home state well into the 90s and transformed most of the Northeast into a sauna. And while a main focus of Unity’s curriculum is global climate change, the institution is not well-equipped to deal with the unusually hot summer, according to Tardif.

“Basically, I’m just really in hell,” said Tardif, associate director of communications at the college.

As the searing heat wave blankets the East Coast this week, students and employees at Northeast colleges, who are accustomed to freezing winters, are now having to deal with an exceptionally sweltering summer.

At Unity, Tardif said he works in a renovated art gallery with one window and no air conditioning. To add to the problem, he said, extensive renovations on the campus are leaving many buildings with circulation problems and no air conditioning.

“All we have are fans pushing air in a circle,” Tardif said. “It’s pure misery.”

In Portland, which is about an hour from Unity, the high temperature was 90 degrees on Monday, 11 degrees above normal for the date, and 10 degrees warmer than Tuesday’s afternoon temperatures in Miami.

Luckily, no students are taking classes at Unity during the summer -- only participants in a youth summer camp.

Like their peers to the Northeast, students and faculty in Vermont aren't accustomed to such high temperatures. “Normally we are preparing our students for extreme weather -- but it’s always the cold extreme, not the heat,” said Matthew Barone, a Marlboro College spokesman. “The humidity has really put us over the edge. We all feel really lethargic and exhausted.”

Devin Karambelas, a student at the University of Vermont who lives off-campus during the summer, said the heat is unexpected, especially for her friends that chose to attend the university specifically for Vermont’s cold weather.

“I know that I personally didn't expect the 90-degree summer temperatures that have become the norm lately. The first few weeks of school can be brutal, especially living on campus where there isn't any AC in the dorms,” Karambelas said in an e-mail. “But I would think it's just not cost effective for the university to invest in any kind of equipment that could make this weather more bearable, because it's so temporary.”

Luckily, Karambelas said, the waterfront is close by campus. Tardif also mentioned a nearby river in Unity, which some employees gather around mid-day to cool off.

Vermont isn’t the only place where students are surviving without air conditioning.

At Pennsylvania State University, 2,500 students are living in dorms during the summer, and almost none of the freshman dorm rooms have air conditioning. A total of 36,000 guests will live in the dorms at different periods during the summer, said Conal Carr, the director of housing.

Carr said all of the common areas in the dorm buildings are now air conditioned and equipped with wireless Internet, so students can stay there to keep cool. Also, the commons buildings on campus are air conditioned and open 24 hours a day, and there are “plenty of other spaces on campus” to go, Carr said.

Even places equipped with air conditioning are having their troubles. Hot weather is less of an anomaly at Ohio University, in Athens, but an unscheduled outage at a chilled water plant on campus shut off air conditioning in several buildings on the university’s west campus. The outage occurred on Sunday, and five buildings that were affected remained closed until Thursday, said Renea Morris, a university spokeswoman. During the outage, other buildings around campus that still had air conditioning experienced warmer-than-normal temperatures, Morris said. As of Friday morning, allof the buildings but one are open, said a statement from the university.

Morris said the closings did not affect summer classes, since they were held in other buildings. However, since new student orientation was going on this week, activities for new students and their parents had to be moved to other buildings.

“Of course, with a heat wave, that makes things a little more difficult,” she said. “It’s not pleasant, but unfortunately it’s one of those things that happen in this part of the country, so you do what you need to try and stay cool.”

Trading Places

Some students have received heat advisories from their universities this week, and some institutions are accommodating students who do not have air conditioning in their dorms.

The residence halls at Smith College, in Massachusetts, are not air-conditioned. The college posted a notice on its news website on Thursday telling students that the National Weather Service had issued a heat advisory until the evening. It listed various air-conditioned sites on campus that would be open for extended hours while the advisory was in effect, including the pool.  

New York University sent an e-mail to students this week telling them that Con Edison issued a request to users throughout the city to reduce energy consumption, since the heat wave could cause blackouts. While some dorm rooms on NYU’s campus are air-conditioned, others are not. The e-mail told students to contact student housing services if they were living in non-air-conditioned rooms and needed a cool place to sleep.

The president of American International College in Massachusetts had a more creative idea for cooling off students and faculty when a heat wave hit Springfield in May. He had maintenance set up a Slip ‘n' Slide on campus.

“There were students out there all afternoon,” said Craig Greenberg, a college spokesman. “It gave everyone a nice break.”

Christopher Proctor, who grew up in Dallas and now attends the University of Tulsa, said he always had a tough time sympathizing with those from the East Coast who complain about the summer heat -- until he spent a summer in New York and Boston during a heat wave.

“Whenever the East Coast gets a heat wave we in the South usually think it's kind of funny to watch the Northerners freak out about a week of 90-degree weather when we deal with temperatures over 100 for months on end. But, last summer … I realized that it's such a big deal because air conditioning isn't as universal there as it is here,” Proctor said. “Honestly, I can't say I've ever been in a building in Texas or Oklahoma that doesn't have air conditioning.”

Unity’s Tardif said that even though he’s in Maine, he feels like he’s living in Dallas. But this week he would probably be better off in Texas -- where residents experienced rain and comfortable temperatures in the 70s and 80s, according to Ann Hatch, director of media relations at Dallas County Community College District.

 “We keep looking at our calendars to make sure it’s actually July,” Hatch said.


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