About 1,000 freshmen moved into the Southern Oregon University residence halls today, and the university is hoping more students will see dorm life as a natural part of college, even into their sophomore and junior years.

When Ali Fritz decided to attend Southern Oregon University and major in theater, there was no question that the freshman would live in the dorms. She had visited several times with her high school class and stayed on campus each time.

"I was already used to the dorm experience," she said. "In a way, it seems like a natural progression ... It's kind of scary, but I'm kind of excited to adjust to a new way of living. It will be interesting to live with lots of different kinds of people and get to know them."

Fritz and about 1,000 other freshmen moved into the residence halls today, and the university is hoping there are more students like her who see dorm life as a natural part of college, even into their sophomore and junior years.

Jason Ebbeling, the director of housing and residential life, is expecting up to 1,100 students this fall to live on campus with the addition of transfer and international students. The school can handle up to 1,300 students in traditional student housing, creating an occupancy rate around 85 percent, he said. Two entire halls — Aspen and Baker, with a capacity of 300 — are no longer used for student housing due to lack of demand.

"Ideally we'd like to have those filled with students," he said. "We really would like to have the campus be much more of a residential campus."

Research shows that graduation rates improve when students live on campus, because they are closer to academic support and other services, he said. About 80 percent of students living on campus are freshmen, and most move off campus as sophomores. The focus this year will be providing an experience that convinces students to return to the dorms for a second or third year, he said.

This summer, the housing and residential life offices merged to create a more seamless operation and customer service-centered approach to student life. Staff created a new honors hall and are considering adding themed living around the topics of civic engagement or outdoor leadership in the future.

Five faculty and staff are living on campus this year, a record number for the "faculty in residence" program, and faculty are being encouraged to eat with students in the dining halls.

The university is working to overhaul campus dining services, including a focus on health, student choice and more vegetarian options.

"We obviously want higher numbers in the residence halls," Ebbeling said. "The push is really to have students more satisfied with living in the halls, so we get more sophomores and juniors living on campus."

For 19-year-old sophomore Taylor York, a second year in the dorms made sense, even though most of her friends fled to off-campus housing.

"A lot of it had to do with ease," she said. "I know it's 15 minutes to any class from my door."

Her friends who left said they were ready for more independence, less supervision and their own kitchen. But York saw that a move would also mean losing the community atmosphere of a dorm.

"I don't have to be completely on my own yet," she said. "I wasn't quite ready to let that community go."

Students moving in today weren't quite sure what to expect, but they are looking for that community and some new friends.

"I've lived in the same spot my entire life," said freshman Beau Cantyne, 18, who came to SOU from Hawaii. "Just living with other people who aren't my family is going to be something completely foreign to me.

Today's move-in day kicks off a long weekend of activities meant to integrate freshmen into campus life before classes start on Monday. Activities begin today with a drum circle hosted by Patrick Pinson of Portland on the Cascade lawn at 7 p.m., Ebbeling said.

Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.