Blocking at Harvard

Stephen M. Shelton

Aticus A. Peterson ’14 is an active member of the Mormon community at Harvard, and he will be spending the next two years not at school but instead in Taiwan, doing missionary work. Two of his blockmates will also be going on missions next year, making blocking a more complicated experience for them than it is for most students.

As Peterson stirs his hot chocolate with whipped cream, he talks about the time he spends tutoring underprivileged children, teaching English to Chinese students, and giving piano lessons. He goes about his weeks and weekends without consuming alcohol or caffeine—thus the hot chocolate. Two of his blockmates are other Mormons whom he met through church: “Great guys,” he explains, “who understand where I’m coming from.”

Yet Peterson also made a concerted effort to meet students outside of the Mormon community at Harvard. Three of his new blockmates are non-Mormon, the roommates and entryway-mates of a Mormon friend. “It’s so easy for me to gravitate towards other Mormons just because we’re all having similar experiences. So I made an effort to come out of that group when I came.” He does acknowledge the existence of Mormon clusters in every Harvard class—“Although which class am I really in?” he wonders aloud. The ambiguity of his position at Harvard when he returns in two years, when he will technically be a sophomore, makes blocking with other Mormons, who will also return to campus after a two-year mission, that much more attractive.

Peterson, however, says that Mormons are no more divided from the rest of the Harvard community than many other cultural, even other religious, groups. Speaking about homogeneity, Peterson says, “I feel that it exists at Harvard. People tend to group together based off of interest or whatever else makes them click. A lot of times it’s those student groups that bring people together, and a lot are based off of race or religion.” For instance, he notes that many Jewish students on campus seem to spend time together.

Peterson’s conflict between diversity and familiarity isn’t uncommon among freshmen. Nkechinyerem U. Iko ’14, one of his classmates, puts it plainly: “Opposites don’t always attract.” After all, she says, “If you like yourself, you’re obviously going to have friends who are very similar to you, that have the characteristics about yourself that you enjoy.” The statement begs the question: when searching for our future blockmates, are we looking in the mirror?

THE SYSTEM

This is Suzanne M. Watts’ sixth year as the Pforzheimer House Administrator, but before that she had the same job at Quincy, and she has also worked as what used to be called the “housing officer” in what used to be the “housing office” (now the Office of Student Life, which oversees the freshmen lottery process). By now an expert on blocking groups, Watts speaks about general trends over the lull of soft classical music in her bright, cozy office in the Quad. She says she isn’t aware of too many commonalities within blocking groups, other than athletes—“But that’s sort of a given,” she says. They have the same hours, and they’re very team-oriented, she explains.

Otherwise, there is the freshmen roommate/entryway tendency to stick together in some cases. But because Harvard makes a concerted effort to mix up the freshmen suites, especially in terms of geographic background, blocking groups exhibit diversity, Watts thinks.

And once the groups move into the Houses, more stick together than don’t in terms of rooming groups for junior and senior year. If they are going to break up, they usually do so sophomore year, “when they come into their own a little more and realize it’s not a perfect match.” But some groups are loyal. Watts is a fan of the linking system—which has only been around for 10 years or so—because having more friends at least in the neighborhood ties students to their Houses. According to Watts, inter-house transfer requests have lowered since the introduction of the option of linking. Even before that, students used to be able to block with up to 16 people. “It became a little disruptive because you found that you got the whole football team in one House,” she says. The goal of each House is to be a microcosm of the college in terms of student diversity, and having smaller blocking groups has helped reached this goal.

Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67  has been a member of the Harvard community for decades and has overseen numerous efforts to make blocking a more positive experience for students. Countless focus groups and surveys later, Dingman and other members of the administration have come to the same conclusion: “While the process is stressful for many, there really is no better system.”

Dingman, with an affable, friendly demeanor, speaks earnestly about blocking in a way that contradicts the stereotype of the rigid, inaccessible Harvard administrator. He emphasizes again and again how much he hates to see students get hurt during the blocking process. A pained expression becomes evident when he recounts the e-mail he sent to the freshmen class advising them to be open and honest in their conversations with their peers, after becoming aware of several instances of freshmen unexpectedly finding themselves the “odd man out” in a blocking group.

Dingman corroborates Watts’ theory about blocking group formations. The entryways, he believes, are “reflective of the overall diversity of the school.” Some people, he concedes, will not end up forming a close relationship with their roommates or entryway-mates and have to look outside of that community for blockmates. In those cases, more groups will form based off of extracurriculars or sports teams. Still, he cautions against labeling a group as “homogenous” just because all its members share a common interest. It does not seem fair to him to label a group of all-male lacrosse-players “the same,” simply because they practice a sport together every afternoon.

BUILDING A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Cagla G. Seten ’13, who goes by her middle name, Gamze, lives in Leverett House but hails from Turkey. She grins as she announces that her blocking group is locally famous for its makeup of eight different nationalities, none of them American. Among the represented countries are France, Germany, Cambodia, Peru, Italy, Ireland, Israel, and of course Turkey.

The eight international students met before freshman week, during the Freshman International Program (FIP). Gamze acknowledges her attachment to these very first people she met at Harvard, the ones with whom she learned how to draw money from American banks, and other such cultural concerns. After FIP was over, they would often frequent events held by Woodbridge, a society devoted to international students at Harvard. Although there was some drama with not having enough room for other friends in the group (“Like every blocking group,” she muses), it worked out and everyone has been happy with the decision. Gamze notes that hers is certainly not the first group of Woodbridge people to block together. This year there are at least two such groups, she says.

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