A House of One's Own: Off-Campus Life

This article is the second in a two-part series on Dudley House and non-resident students.

Ray DeGraw '91 is the only married freshman at Harvard and expects to be the only sophomore next year with a child. DeGraw, 22, is a former Mormon missionary in Japan. He commutes to Harvard daily from Medford, where he and his wife actively participate in a local church.

"Whenever someone finds out that my wife is expecting, there are always two reactions," DeGraw says. "One is, 'Oh, Congratulations.' That generally comes from non-students. The other reaction, from students, is 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' They don't think it was planned, obviously. They think it was a mistake.

DeGraw is only one of the approximately 350 Harvard undergraduates who live off campus. Although many of these students live near Harvard Square, others commute from as far away as Brighton, Medford and Allston. Off-campus students are automatically affiliated with Dudley House, unless they have lived in a residential house for one year, in which case they may choose to remain affiliated with that house. About 250 non-residents are affiliated with Dudley and the rest are distributed among the 12 other houses.

Off-campus students are a heterogeneous bunch. Many tasted house life for a year or two and then decided to move off campus, while others are returning students who feel they are too old to live in the houses. Some are transfer students, who are not guaranteed on-campus housing. Less than a dozen are married students, and a handful are commuters who live with their parents.

Many students say they live off campus because they don't like or are tired of what Paul S. Ellis '85-'88 calls the "sterile environment" of house life. "I wasn't very happy with house life," Ellis says. "I couldn't relate to the social life mostly. I wanted to live in a more cooperative environment where we all did our own cooking and cleaning, where it would be more of a family." Ellis now lives in Arlington with a group of "regular young folks," and he is the only student in his building.

Adelaide E. Foster '88 says she was tired of dormitory life after four years of boarding school and two years at Harvard. During freshman year she and some Thayer Hall friends thought about living off campus and, after sampling North House for a year, they rented a home in Allston.

Other non-resident students complain about the public nature of dorm life. "It's hard to have privacy," says Charley Welch '88, who moved to Dorchester after living in Kirkland House for two years. "I had a seven-man suite with a walk-through, and it was tough. I needed the extra space." Bob L. Ellison '87-'90, who originally lived in Winthrop, agrees saying the house "was no place to take a date. There was no place to sit."

Cultural differences also prompt some students to live off campus. Jessica A. Zern '88, an Orthodox Jew of the Lubavich sect, lives with a rabbi's family in Brighton because she says it is difficult to be a religious Jew living in the Houses. Samer Nadir '89, a native of Lebanon who lives with his parents in Arlington, adds that Americans and Lebanese think differently about living off campus during college.

"In high school here you get brainwashed that you go to college and get away from your parents. It's kind of a cultural thing," Nadir says. "In Lebanon, you live at home and go to college. In Lebanon, you say, 'Oh, poor guy, he lives in a dorm.' So I don't feel compelled to live in a dorm."

And then there are the students who are off campus by mistake. Students returning from leave must notify Harvard in advance to get housing, and some of them miss the deadline. They find themselves in off-campus housing by default. Julia *** '91 had a similar problem. She lives at home in Medford largely because her father' checked off the wrong box on her Harvard application. "When he deals with forms he makes stupid mistakes," she says. But she adds, "I probably would have stayed home anyway."

Living off campus has many benefits, students say, but they also say they sometimes feel isolated and alone. "You're not really a part of the school," says Tauk K. Chang '88-'90, who lived in Eliot House during his sophomore year and now lives with an Italian family in Braintree. "Dudley House students do feel like they're second class citizens."

"Being a member of Dudley House, there is somewhat a sense of being cut off from the rest of the campus," Ellis says. "From my perspective, of having lived on and off, I see Dudley House as being out of the mainstream of Harvard." Making friends can be difficult for commuters because "they'll be your friends in class, but after class you don't see them anymore," Nadir says.

Marilena Barletta '90, who lives with her parents in Brighton, says, "Whenever I'm introduced to people there's always a moment of tension because I know they're going to ask me what house I live in, and I'm forced to tell them I live off-campus. I'm almost not equal to them. They're part of a group that I'm not."

Others say the isolation makes off-campus living attractive. "There's nothing like coming home at the end of the day to your own house," Welch says. Nadir agrees, saying, "Personally, at the end of the day I like to leave campus and just change atmospheres."