South Side Café - the place to be on Saturday night at Fairfield University


Image: SouthsidePartying and weekends at many colleges are often tied to alcohol.

But at Fairfield University, there is an alcohol-free social destination and it's packing them in on a regular basis.

Called the South Side Café, the coffee bar for the University's students opened up last fall. Spoken-Word Poetry, Open Mic Night, and live music with the Brent & Co. Band and Jeff Leblanc have been big hits at the club, located in Saint Peter Faber, S.J. Hall, a residence hall on campus. By day, the Café is known as the 'Commons' - a study area and TV lounge, complete with large windows and cathedral ceiling. But by Saturday night, the beanbag chairs and funky antique furniture come out. The smell of coffee percolates throughout, student artwork adorns the walls, and music can be heard above the din of hundreds of voices. Its hours are 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

On opening night, 140 students showed up. 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, Conn., who has frequented the café on a number of occasions. "The Open Mic 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."

Nicholas Frega '16, a politics and religious studies major from Southington, Conn., shared, "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."

Victoria Schuchmann '16, noted, "[It's] such a great resource for an alternative Saturday night. I can't wait to go back."

Deirdre Bennett, assistant director of Student Affairs Communication, along with Caroline Fain, program assistant in the Dean of Students' Office, proposed the idea to the Office of Residence Life and Department of Student Programs and Leadership Development after attending a workshop on binge drinking among college students. "It hit us that what we needed was a destination so students could gather in a relaxing, fun space that didn't include alcohol," Bennett said. "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."

Image: SouthsideKaren Donoghue, dean of students, observed, "South Side Café is a place where students can gather, hang out and have a great time. It's a new, cool space to have fun and socialize."

Alcohol-free programming - such as salsa night, the Fairfield Flicks movie series, Late Night in Barone - has existed at Fairfield for years, "but these tend to be events," noted Kamala Kiem, director of Student Programs and Leadership Development, whose department had also been noodling over the development of a fun and exciting substance-free space for students to gather.

It wasn't exactly a hard sell. While student fees cover part of the cost, the Office of Residence Life, the Dean of Students, and Conference and Event Management were eager to lend their support as well. (Fittingly, several hundred dollars each month come from student alcohol fines.) Finding the right spot was key, but so was finding the right student to run the place.

Kiem asked 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 cafe.

The student team of five, part of Fairfield @ Night, gathers weekly to discuss programming, purchasing, and any problems that have come up. (Fairfield @ Night also plans and promotes other free, late night programming around campus. Colleen Wilson '11, M. Ed., program coordinator in Student Program and Leadership Development, supervises the entire Fairfield@Night staff, which includes the South Side team.) At 8:45 p.m. each Saturday, they get to work converting the room from a study area to a spot to socialize; by 10 p.m., when students start trickling in, the transformation is complete.

The campus groups "Performing for Change' and the Your Mom Does Improv team have appeared several evenings. A series of rotating chefs provides a simple, inexpensive menu, and coffee, tea, and soda are always free. In February, for instance, there was 'Paint Nite' that drew 135 students, during which time students had a step-by-step lesson from an artist.  "Students have given us feedback that they have really enjoyed the nights where we have offered crafts as an option or something artistic to do," said Wilson.

"The lighting and atmosphere set this event up to the greatest late night Fairfield experience I have ever had," said Christopher Van Akin '16. "It was my first time there, and I would absolutely go again... It felt like a great party."

Lynch agrees the space was needed and is so fortunate for the positive feedback it has received from students and administrators.

As the Department of Student Programs and Leadership Development starts planning for South Side Café's upcoming fall season, they continue to look for creative ways to enhance the space and invite different campus partners or affiliated alumni to help support the space in anyway. They are very grateful for the support they've gotten so far and welcome anyone to contact them if they would like to support the space for the upcoming academic year.

-Nina M. Riccio MA '09 helped write this article.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on April 29, 2014

Vol. 46, No. 288