Times Staff Writer
Julianne Wilhelm sits on her bed, bubblegum pink comforter from Target spread neatly across the plush hotel mattress.
Her clothes are folded into plastic bins, textbooks stacked beside a new laptop. She shipped her new plates and cups with matching pink handles back home to Daytona Beach, because there's no kitchen here.
"You'll be moving into the Hilton," Julianne's mom told her, right before the new semester at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
"They named the dorm Hilton?"
More out-of-town freshman than ever came to the school this year, filling up the 351 campus dorm rooms. Extra students moved into the gleaming Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. About 50 are still waiting for rooms in the residence hall or complexes nearby. It costs them $8.50 more per day to stay at the Hilton.
They could be there all semester.
Julianne leafs through a mass communications textbook. The sound is muted on the hotel television.
"Most of my friends went to the University of Florida, and I've been calling them every night and they have new friends over," says Julianne, 18. "I'm so jealous that they get to sit down for dinner.
"It's kind of quiet by yourself."
• • •
The first weeks of college can shape everything.
You're away for the first time, thrust in close quarters with people who will be your mortal enemies or your best friends forever.
It's not that living in a hotel is bad. It's great in a lot of ways. There's a pool, a Starbucks, marble surfaces and chandeliers. The University of Tampa has used hotels to house students for ten years. They have residence assistants, rules, camera security.
But it's just not college.
"They've got these big fancy paintings," says Austin Johnson, pointing to a huge canvas of some sort of ... rose? Magnolia?
The room is hot and smells of boy. The beds are messy. Monster energy drinks sit on the elegant side tables, cans of soup in the garbage, Xbox 360 by the TV.
Austin is 19, a graphic design student who transferred from the Art Institute of Tampa. His face is obstructed by an unruly beard, curly hair and a hat — a study in contrasts with the businessmen in expensive suits at the hotel.
"You get all the fancy people, and I look like a haggard old dude," he says.
Like most students, he got paired with a roommate. Matt Johnson, 17, is a psychology student and yoga enthusiast who sells energy drinks and goes by "Ice Breaker." He talks, even in his sleep.
When Matt found out about the Hilton, he was upset about the extra cost. Then he realized he wouldn't have a kitchen. He didn't have money to eat out, even though the owner of nearby Cafe 100 has cut a meal plan for students.
"I started making some calls."
Within days, Matt rounded up two mini-fridges, a toaster oven and a microwave where he makes ramen. Austin uses the hotel ice bucket to cool his hot tea.
At night, objects outside cast strange shadow between the luxury drapes. And the other morning, a window washer startled them awake.
For its challenges, though, both guys agree. The beds are amazing.
"The beds," they say. "The beds."
Having maid service is cool, too.
"I came in one day and the bed was all nice," says Austin. "I was like, alright."
Matt hasn't had trouble making friends. He invited a housekeeper to have an iced tea. She declined.
Austin is quiet. He mostly stays in the room or rides his skateboard in the street. Being in a dorm would help him, he says. He helped his younger sister move into the residence hall this semester, and felt a twinge of ... something.
"I feel a little disconnected."
• • •
Julianne had a roommate for all of five minutes.
"When I came in, all her stuff was set up," she says. "She said, 'Oh, hi, I'm...' actually, I don't even remember her name." The phone rang. A room had opened up in the dorm. Her family swooped in and packed everything up, "like a swarm of ants."
Julianne was alone.
It's been nice having the bathroom to herself. She can study in peace and play John Mayer from her laptop, pick Publix caesar salad right out of a bag. The people at Starbucks know her name.
At night, she Skypes with her older sister and dreams of campus. She'll join the young Republicans and an environmental club. She'll have so many friends, she won't know what to do.
She'll get a part time job, too. She already has one in mind.
She heard the Hilton is hiring receptionists.