A caring community at Collins Hall connects past, present and future generations of residents.
Moving into a residence hall is a rite of passage for all first-year students at Baylor. It marks the transition from childhood to young adulthood and the first steps toward establishing a foundation upon which to build and grow. In their campus residences, newly minted Bears experience a community rich with meaningful friendships and Christian fellowship that leaves an indelible imprint on their lives. The on-campus living experience is so impactful that, for many, their Baylor experience and their residence hall experience are forever intertwined. Such is the case for the women of Ruth Collins Hall, a residential facility that has been the beginning of Baylor stories for more than 65 years.
As a first-year, all-women residence hall, nearly the entire resident population of Collins changes with the passing of each year, but one thing remains constant. “The formative elements of who you live with, the friendships you forge, the memories you make in that first year, for some students, even those who graduated 50 years ago, those are the relationships they still talk about,” said Sharra Hynes, associate vice president and dean of students.
This year, Collins reopened to continue the tradition of formational community living and learning after a $41.7 million renovation that included everything from plumbing to security to the network infrastructure. On Move-In Day, the women were greeted by community leaders in a grand lobby on the first floor. The area that once served as the dining hall had been repurposed into a welcoming community space. A new main entrance on 7th Street now points toward campus and Pat Neff Hall, while the original 8th Street entry now serves as a back door to the facility.
Those friendships Hynes talked about are exactly what Katie Dessel, an only child and Southern California native, has already discovered. “I’ve really found a great community at Baylor and especially in Collins,” she said.
Community at Collins
Even without any previous connection to Baylor, Dessel knew it was the right fit and made her decision to attend. Dessel also knew she wanted to live in Collins for a number of reasons — she sought a first-year student hall, an all-female residence hall was appealing and Collins was the newest residential facility.
“When I was at Line Camp, Collins was still unfinished. I could see the beginning of my future home, and then when I got there in the fall, it was such a big transformation,” said Dessel.
Dessel has enjoyed fellowship through Thursday tea with the resident chaplains, community at the large downstairs tables big enough for all her friends to face each other for conversation, friendship bracelet making and eye mask decorating.
“Without the people it would just be a building. I love Collins for its community,” she said.
When Dessel looks back on her time and how she wrote her own Collins story, she hopes the story says, “Collins helped me get a good start to my college career, I made lifelong friends there and its community helped to build my faith.”
At the forefront of the remodel was the emphasis on community Dessel and her fellow residents experience, but there also was a desire to connect Collins’ rich history to the present. As a result, those who shaped their Baylor journeys in Collins over the years were invited to mark the historic renovation by sharing favorite memories and moments from their time living in the hall. Hundreds of those stories were inscribed on wallpaper that now covers a feature wall in the common area, integrating the memories into the renovation itself to preserve the stories of students who had come before.
“It’s a beautiful representation of Baylor past, present, as well as Baylor future in terms of the diversity of our community and the environment we’re trying to create, [a place] where no matter your historical connection to Baylor, you can find home. You can find that sense of belonging and space that this is where I will forge my Baylor journey,” said Hynes.
The most consistent memory cited by residents across the decades centers around friendship and faith, including that shared by Lori Baldridge, B.A. ’88, M.B.A. ’89, who lived in room 336.
“My favorite memory is of talking with my roommate and the time I first understood God’s love for me,” Baldridge said.
Other memories shared range from stories of late-night runs to the Mrs. Baird’s bakery for a hot loaf of bread to be enjoyed by roommates, studying together while doing laundry in the basement, and putting the landline telephones from each room in the hallway so that any resident could take a message for her fellow hallmates, to dressing the portrait of Ruth Collins that hangs in the lobby and shared time around the piano. That same portrait and piano have been incorporated into the newly renovated space, tying these stories together.
“What an amazing inspiration for the new residents to think, ‘The women who have come before me have written stories of growth, friendship and joy during their time at Collins, and I will write my own story,’” said Hynes.
A Historic Statement
Collins opened its doors in 1957, standing at six stories tall and a block long. It was one of the largest structures in Waco at the time, with twice the square footage of the ALICO building.
The hall is named in honor of Ruth Woodall Collins. Born in Harrison County, Texas, near the Louisiana border, Collins attended what is today Texas State University in San Marcos, where she met her future husband, Carr P. Collins, a Baylor benefactor and Trustee (1924-33, 1935-42 and 1958-61). After college graduation, she taught school for three years. The couple married in 1914 and moved to Dallas.
The Collins family gave generously to Baylor over the years, including gifts that made Roxy Grove Hall and Waco Hall East possible, established an endowed chair in finance and began the Carr P. Collins Scholars Program. In recognition of their generosity, the $1.8 million residential hall was named in honor of Ruth.
Original blueprints of the lobby reveal three living rooms — appropriate for formal gatherings or receiving callers — a dining room for family-style meals and a study room. These blueprints are now framed and on display in the lobby as part of the feature wall covered with wallpaper telling the stories of former residents. Though the design and function of gathering spaces have taken different shapes over the years, the residential hall has remained a catalyst for connection and friendship for generations.
Home Away from Home
Collins houses more than 450 female residents year after year across all majors and areas of study, and Hayley Thomas is the resident hall director whose leadership helps tie the community together.
“You’ve got a mix of people who are first-generation students. They’re the first in their families to pave the way. Then you have students who are fourth-generation Baylor Bears, sharing experiences with family members who came before them,” Thomas said.
During Homecoming, the hall held an open house for alumni and friends, welcoming back generations of Collins women to their first home on Baylor’s campus. They saw newly conceived spaces for gathering on the first floor, including study rooms, a fitness room, areas with comfy sofas, a ping pong table, classrooms and a reflection room, to name a few. Lounge spaces at the end of the hallways on each floor provide additional inviting places to gather. Throughout these spaces are thoughtful elements serving as an homage to the structure’s previous designs and stories.
Jewell Smith is a current resident at Collins studying communications. Her mom, Ashley Smith, B.A. ’97, attended the open house to reminisce about their shared experience of living in Collins.
“My mom and I are really close. I didn’t take for granted I am at Baylor, so getting to share that and the same residence hall with her is really special,” Jewell Smith said.
One marked difference from the Collins that Ashley Smith remembers is the presence of kitchens on each floor. Now there is a single, larger kitchen in the updated lobby.
“You are able to have more community in the updated spaces of Collins,” Jewell Smith said. “My mom was really excited for all of the fun things I am able to do because of the new space.”
“It was so wonderful to see the past and current Collins residents together during the open house. They share the same experiences of building community and discovering who their adult selves will be. Part of the role of a residence hall is to create a space where everyone feels excited to be in community with one another and excited to be their full authentic selves without fear of judgment. Our hope is that we’re creating that kind of environment,” said Thomas.
Smith said that Collins already feels like a home after just one semester.
“I settled in really quickly, and Baylor does a lot to get you plugged in. It’s been sweet to have a college family here in Collins, but also to have aspects of my own family connected to Baylor through my mom’s experiences here. It’s truly been a home away from home.”
First Faculty in Residence
The Collins renovation is set within the framework of Baylor’s plans to renovate several residential spaces. Already complete are Penland, Martin, North and South Russell, and North Village. On the horizon are Memorial, Alexander, Allen and Dawson, and Kokernot Halls. Until this year, each of the residence halls except Collins had a faculty member living in the community. Intentional in the Collins redesign was space for the hall’s first faculty in residence. Lesley McAllister, D.M.A., professor of piano and director of keyboard studies, as well as a faculty regent, serves in the inaugural role in Collins.
“I feel like I didn’t really know Baylor until I started living on campus because I got to experience it,” she said.
From running the line at football games and joining student organizations to Line Camps and residential life, the first year of college is particularly formative.
“We’re really being intentional about inclusivity and trying to help all students feel welcome and loved and supported,” said McAllister. “The college years are among the most important years of any person’s life. It’s part of why I wanted to be a faculty in residence.”
This summer she and her husband Scott, professor of composition and director of academic studies and music, and their two sons packed their home in Baylor’s Texana House, where she had served as faculty in residence since Spring 2021. A driving factor for McAllister in choosing to serve as a faculty in residence is the opportunity to serve as a mentor like others did for her. “That first year of living away from home and developing these lifelong friendships was just so impactful,” she said, noting that she loves the student energy at Collins.
Collins has two resident chaplains who live in the community and foster an environment of spiritual wellbeing and belonging. They’re also a listening ear for students.
As McAllister interacts with students, she intentionally shares her faith, wanting students to know that God has a plan for their lives.
“I hope for them that they understand they’re loved not for what they appear to be, for how they perform in their classes or for who they are to their friends, but really because of who they are as God made them,” she said.
In addition to teaching piano pedagogy, McAllister’s research interests include mind-body relaxation techniques for performance anxiety and yoga for musicians. On Sundays she holds a yoga class in the community fitness room as a way to connect with students. Her themed classes in the fall included kicking off with setting intentions for the semester and a spooky yoga at Halloween, complete with glow paint and black lights.
“It’s a way to build community and have fun,” said McAllister.
A Storied Residence Hall
A persistent throughline in the subtle details of Collins’ renovation is connecting the past with the present. Thinking back to those visual stories on the wall, Hynes can’t help but think of the inspiration the young women who are just starting their Baylor journeys experience when they see that wall. She hopes they will take time to reflect on their own legacy.
“When we talk about legacy and the future, and we call students into their Baylor experience, of course we talk about the Baylor Line that connects generations of Bears and what a great privilege it is. It’s a blessing to now be a part of that forever. These students also are forever a part of this project,” Hynes said.