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."

The contrast is particularly striking for non-resident students who used to live on campus. John T. Bender '88, who moved off campus after living in the "dreary and dreadful" Quad, says, "It really helps at the end of the day to get away from the Harvard environment and be by yourself and relax fully. Living off campus you get back to your own little homestead, and it's good."

Whether or not they like the separation, nonresident students say it nevertheless leads to new lifestyles and problems which resident students do not face, including a feeling of schizophrenia. "There's a definite sense of living two lives," Ellis says. "I have a life at Harvard and a life here in Arlington...I exist in both spheres simultaneously." Similarly, Barletta says she has two groups of friends, one at Harvard and one in Brighton, and "they rarely ever mix." But she adds, "It's nice to keep them separate."

The connections between these two worlds are buses, trains or bicycles, and many non-residents complain that the commute can be rough, particularly when it snows. "The Red Line is just a disaster," Welch says, and "the parking is terrible. The time spent going between Dorchester and Harvard is a real pain."

Anne Hogan Wheeler '89, who lives with her husband in Boston, says she nearly missed her Shakespeare final last semester because "the Red Line broke down and I was freaking out." As a result, some commuters will not take 9:00 a.m. classes or will sleep through them and watch lectures on videotape.

Others make the best of an otherwise dreary commute. Zern says she uses her time on the bus to read daily portions of the Torah, and Petipas says she often meets "interesting" people on the bus, such as "one woman who sat next to me and screamed to me that I was Jewish and she hated Jews. I had to move to another seat."

Off-campus students face other practical problems, especially with reserve reading which may not be taken out overnight from Lamont and Hilles until 8:00 p.m. on weekdays. Commuter students therefore must stay on campus later than they would prefer in order to take their reading home. "The major problem living off campus has been the libraries." Ellis says. "The reserved reading thing is a drag. It creates a hassle for me."

John Lanham '70. Associate Librarian at Lamont Library, defends the reserve reading policy, saying that if the library let books out earlier it would be "tying up the books for a longer period of time" and "affecting some students who have late classes."

"Although there are commuters, and I myself was a commuter when I was here," Lanham says, "the majority of students are residential," and the libraries seek "the greatest good for the greatest number." The student-faculty Committee on Libraries has jurisdiction over the reserve reading policy, so if many commuter students complained, the committee could change the rule, Lanham says.

In addition, some commuters complain that they have no place to go between classes during the day. Dudley House provides its students with a dining hall, a library, a dark room and a game room in Lehman Hall. But some students say that the Yard building does not really fit all of their needs. "The library is kind of boring, and the cafeteria is not that ideal either," says Maya Dumermuth '88.

Non-residents say it can be a hassle to plan each day in advance so they can bring all the requisite books and athletic equipment with them to school. Dudley House tries to minimize this problem by providing lockers--also in Lehman Hall--for commuter students. "Thank God for the Dudley House locker system," Wheeler says. "I usually have my gym bag and a million books, and I look like a bag lady so it's a good thing I have my locker."

Many commuters say a big advantage of living off campus is having their own kitchen. Petipas says she likes cooking her own "exotic concoctions" and "strange Japanese things," and Ellison says, "I like to cook my own food because it's better."

Living off campus also provides a quiet atmosphere for writing senior theses, according to Welch. In addition, commuters say it teaches them what real life is like. "If you are at Harvard you are so protected," says Dumermuth, who lives with her husband in Somerville. "You don't have to struggle to get a job. But if you know people who are in the working world, then you know other aspects of the city."

Married students who commute to Harvard, like Dumermuth, have very different lifestyles than resident students and even other non-resident students.

"Many of the social pressures that students face don't really confront me," says DeGraw, whose wife expects to bear their child in July "For example, dating. All of the headaches, like 'Will she like me?', 'Who'm I going out with this weekend?', 'Can I get a date?', those types of problems don't distract me."

Dumermuth agrees, saying, "You don't have to worry about meeting the right person and all that stuff...Studies are so hard. It's good to be able to concentrate."

Married students also laud the stability the relationship provides. "Having a wife, obviously it's hard work, but being married is actually the cornerstone of that stability. You've got someone with whom you can talk about absolutely anything, any frustration, any worry, any fear of failure. There's always someone there for help," DeGraw says.

The married students also say that sometimes they have to choose between Harvard and their spouse. "To me, my wife [and] my family [are] more important to me than school," DeGraw says. "If I have to choose between a review session for a class and having to stay home to fix dinner because my wife is sick. I'll stay home."

Wheeler, who worked with the Boston Ballet for six years before transferring to Harvard as a sophomore, says. "I owe [my husband] time, and I want to give him time, so I have to balance both things and find time for both. John has joined the Dudley House Wine Tasting Society, so he comes to Harvard too."

Because of their different lifestyle, married students need special advising, and they receive it from Dudley House Senior Tutor John R. Marquand. Marquand, who advises all Dudley affiliates, says. "I'm not really qualified to be a marriage counselor, but I've been asked to advise on those matters. It is not really so different from talking about your boyfriend or girlfriend."

Harvard requires married students to move off campus if they want to live with their spouses, and transfer students also are not given the opportunity to live in Harvard dormitories. Because of overcrowding in the residential houses, the University does not guarantee on-campus housing to students who come to Harvard after freshman year.

Instead, the College subsidizes housing costs for transfer students who chose to live in several Harvard-owned buildings, including Peabody Terrace, 18 Banks Street and the Botanical Gardens Apartments. These students can also purchase partial board contracts with Harvard Dining Services. The total cost of room and board to transfer students who select this "annex housing" option is usually a little higher than the fees paid by students who live in the residential houses.

All transfer students are automatically affiliated with Dudley House, but, for the first time this year, they can switch their affiliations to residential houses--without receiving a housing guarantee--after one full semester. If space opens up within their new houses, the transfer affiliates are offered the opportunity to move in.

Harvard currently accepts more than 50 new transfers each fall, and this year the College also accepted a small group of transfers for the spring semester. Most of these students say they would prefer to live on campus throughout their Harvard careers.

"Living in Peabody Terrace, where do you meet other students?" asks Allen Adler '89, who transfered from Stanford last year. "You must go out of your way to meet people," he says, adding, "Friends do not fall out of the sky."

Yang Wang, the Dudley resident tutor at Peabody Terrace, says most transfer students "don't like Peabody Terrace. People are kind of separated. It's very hard for students to have a feeling of community." Of the 19 new transfers who were housed in Peabody Terrace this fall, 11 have switched their affiliations to residential houses, Wang says. He adds that eight of the 19 students have moved out--into their new residential houses or to other off-campus housing.

Freshmen commuters from another off-campus group, although admissions officers estimate that only one to five freshmen are currently accepted each year as commuters.

"Dudley House used to admit dozens of freshmen who commuted from home, but now that number has dwindled down to almost none," says Anne H. Goldgar, Dudley House assistant senior tutor. This year Harvard has two commuting freshmen, and last year there were also two freshman commuters.

"I don't think we actively discourage people from living off campus," says Robin M. Worth, freshman senior adviser for the South Yard and a former admissions officer. "But we raise a lot of issues and make sure that they realize all the drawbacks."

Freshman commuters are assigned a freshman adviser and are included in study breaks and gatherings, according to Worth. "There's always a pizza party to bring all of the commuting students together," she says, and "de facto, they're usually affiliated with Pennypacker."

As one of the two commuting freshmen, DeGraw must face not only the schizophrenic commuter life and the problems of being a married student, but he also must cope with an unusual freshman experience. Freshman orientation was "weird because I felt so old," he says. Expository Writing was somewhat different for him as well because his wife typed and proofread his papers. He also does not eat in the Freshman Union because he prefers to have a full meal with his wife. DeGraw's freshman year has certainly been different from that of the average Harvard freshman, but his experience combines elements from the most of the varied lifestyles of non-resident students.