Freshman Roommates, Meet Your Makers
Yard deans hunker down to hand-pick first-year rooming arrangements
Such is the life of the three assistant deans of freshman (ADFs), Lesley Nye Barth, James N. Mancall, and Sue Brown, who spend nearly two-and-a-half months hand-picking rooming groups and then assigning these groups to create entryways.
It’s a process that takes hundreds of hours and turns the summer—when most administrators take a relaxing break from the frenetic pace of the school year—into some of the busiest months for the Freshman Deans Office (FDO).
“The process is enormously time-consuming,” said Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67, “but I think it’s Harvard at its best.”
While the freshman deans at Harvard spend hours hand-picking roommates, a number of other elite colleges—including the University of Pennsylvania, Washington University, Brown, and Cornell—conduct the process mostly by computer. Other schools such as Johns Hopkins and Tufts first divide up students based on dorm preferences and then assign roommates by hand—working, by that point, with much smaller pools of students. Of the nine colleges The Crimson contacted, only Dartmouth and Stanford also match roommates entirely by hand.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
The whole matching process begins in late March, when the Admissions office stuffs a freshman housing application into the envelopes containing acceptance letters to Harvard College. The application contains three parts—a housing section, an advising section, and a records section.
The form itself is quite simple—it asks students to list their academic and extracurricular interests, music tastes, and the number of roommates they prefer. It also requests that students list—on a scale from one to five—how neat and how quiet they want their rooms to be. The form also requires students to choose one of three options for the times they go to bed and wake up. On the back, the form asks students to write an essay describing themselves and what they want in a roommate.
“The whole application is important,” Nye Barth said. “We are trying to get a whole picture of the student. It is more helpful when students say a lot in their essay.”
Mancall and Nye Barth both said that they assume students are honest in their application, although many of the questions are open-ended.
While the Freshman Dean’s Office receives the rooming forms, the Admissions Office puts the names of all the students who have accepted Harvard’s offer into a computer that performs a random sort. That sort is then used to divide the class into three “Yards” of 540 to 580 students: Crimson, Ivy, and Elm. A set of dorms comprises each “yard,” which is overseen by one of the three assistant deans of freshman.
THE PERFECT MATCH
In early June, each assistant dean receives a tall stack of rooming applications—one from literally every student in their Yard. First, the deans read the entire stack of applications from top to bottom. Once the deans read through all the housing applications, the ADF’s start matching up roommates.
There is no hard-and-fast rule for making roommate matches, but Dingman says that the common goal in all cases is “to find people who, based on their self-reporting, will be compatible and also have the chance to learn from one another.”
Each ADF goes about the process in a particular fashion, but all begin making assignments based on the size of suites in their yard. For example, Nye Barth’s Crimson Yard—which included Grays, Wigglesworth, Greenough, Hurlbut, and Pennypacker—contains a variety of room sizes, so before she begins assigning rooms, she sorts the pile into two groups: students who want smaller rooms of three or fewer and those who want larger rooms. On the other hand, Mancall’s Ivy Yard—which includes Claverly, Hollis, Holworthy, Lionel, Massachusetts Hall, Mower, Stoughton, Straus, and Thayer—contains mostly doubles, so Mancall focuses on making pairings of people instead of larger group assignments.
After looking at students’ preferences for rooming-group size, ADF’s look for is compatibility. “We try to find people who have at least one thing in common with academic interests, extracurricular, personal descriptions,” Nye Barth said. She said she also takes into account things like “messiness and hours, though those change dramatically when [students] get here.”
Nye Barth offered a hypothetical student name John as an example.
“Say John from Miami wants to learn how to rock climb. Then I flip through the housing applications looking for a rock climber. I find someone who is compatible from Alaska who is a rock climber. Fabulous!”
The ADF’s’ goal, however, is not necessarily to match up students who will be best friends 10 years after graduation, although Mancall and Nye Barth say that would be an added bonus. Instead, they look for people who can learn from each other.
“We are trying to add something to the educational experience,” Nye Barth said, “not find people who will live happily ever after.”
“My golden rule is to find a balance between people having things in common but also different enough to learn from each other,” said Mancall. “It’s more of an art than a science.”
Nye Barth, for instance, says she has put people together because of their shared love of The Onion or because she thought they would make a good band. But students’ shared interests could be far less specific, like a general interest in politics or a desire for a quiet, neat atmosphere.
Dingman said that the FDO also usually tries to honor general requests like having an international roommate. However, he said that they will not honor any specific requests by name or put people who went to high school together.
“[The freshman living arrangements at] Harvard will make it easy [for old friends] to keep up with each other,” Dingman said, “but it will be limiting. [By not putting friends together] you create a situation where students meet each other’s roommates and their community expands.”
In some cases, the FDO deliberately does not honor requests. Dingman, who worked on creating freshman roommates in the early seventies, gave the example of a student who wrote “put me with anyone but an effete southerner.”
“Our sense was, here is a learning opportunity,” Dingman said. “We thought we could find somebody who would be a congenial match but who might break from the stereotype he just pointed to.”
Once the ADF’s have completed roommate matches in late July, they turn their attention to assigning these matches to suites, which, in turn, build proctor groups and entryways.
“There aren’t formulas there, either,” Mancall said. “Students are assigned to entryways more or less randomly, in the hope that we create a microcosm of the college as a whole.”
There are no “themed entryways,” despite persistent rumors in the freshman class about which dorm is the “athlete dorm” destined to win the “Yard Bucket” awarded for exemplary performance in intramural competition.
The goal, again, is to force students to interact with people they might not otherwise meet. Mancall said that, with entryways constructed to be diverse as possible, students “learn from all kinds of people with different kinds of interests.”
The goal of diversity does not, however, mean that the ADF’s take little care in creating entryways. In fact, they go out of their way to set up groups with the potential for certain interactions.
For example, Dingman remembers that, when he was working on assigning entryways, one student asked to have roommates who were chess players. “We though that would be nice, but then they wouldn’t leave their room and there wouldn’t be any expansion,” said Dingman. “We put him on the first floor and put other chess players higher up in the same entryway.”
Rooming assignments are finalized just before they are sent out to Freshman in mid-August. This year, the mailings are slated to go out next week.
WHO IS YOUR ADVISOR?
When freshmen receive their rooming assignment, they also receive the name of their academic adviser.
While most members of the freshmen class have residential advisers—their proctors—a few hundred students also get non-residential advisers drawn from the faculty and staff at Harvard. The FDO assigns residential and non-residential advisers over the summer as well. But unlike rooming, which is exclusively done by the ADF’s, advising assignments are made by a variety of people at the FDO, including Dingman and Associate Dean of Freshman Rory A. W. Browne.
The FDO attempts to match advisers with advisees who share similar interests.
“The pairing of someone with a non-residential advisor doesn’t say anything about the freshman or our expectations about the freshman’s experience,” Dingman said. “But if someone says, ‘I know I want to do biological anthropology, I have significant experience, and so I am on solid ground to make that remark,’ we’ll look for a biological anthropology person to start [the student] with a meaningful connection.”
But sometimes the pairings are completely non-academic.
“Someone will say, ‘I’m going to miss being a beekeeper,’” Dingman offered. “We had a non-residential adviser who was beekeeper.”
BALLS IN STUDENT COURTS
Mancall, Nye Barth, and Dingman all say they are opening, not closing, windows of opportunity. Once a student receives the slip of paper announcing their roommates, they say, the students themselves are responsible for determining what their freshman years will be like.
“In the end, all we are doing is getting them in the door together,” Mancall said. “What happens after that depends a lot on them.”
The deans do, however, have a recipe for success. Mancall and Nye Barth said that “students who come into the college saying, ‘This will be a great opportunity to meet new people and learn from them and do something new,’ will have a good experience.”
They say that this is especially important with regard to the dorm room students are assigned.
“The dorms are all different,” Nye Barth said. “Students become very upset and worried about perceived inequalities [between dorms or different room sizes]. But they should pay attention to the fact that it is what you make it.”
The deans themselves say that, despite the hard work, they find the process very rewarding.
“There are times when students come up and say you did a great job,” Mancall said. “My response to them is, ‘That’s great, but it’s because of you guys and how you decide to treat each other.’”
Dingman says that the most important evidence of the system’s success is how close people remain to their roommates down the road.
“I think that its rather remarkable, if you look across the freshman class, that so many people end up in blocking groups—or, if not in blocking groups, as lifelong relations,” he said.
The FDO does not keep statistics on file, nor does it measure its success by tracking how many freshman-year roommates block together.
“We aren’t necessarily looking for compatibility,” Mancall said. “We are looking for growth. That’s what freshman year is about—challenge, growth, and conflict, both external and internal.”
—Staff writer Adam M. Guren can be reached at email@example.com.