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?
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.
“It’s cute in a way,” Gamze comments about her all-international blocking group. “Internationals understand each other better.” They are all experiencing life in a foreign culture: “It’s more like a secure bubble for us.” On American holidays attached to three-day weekends, they try to do something together, like go skiing.
There are other advantages: “We have inside jokes about our countries that would be inappropriate outside our blocking group, like Turkey not being able to enter the EU,” she says. “They wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t just the intimacy of the eight of us. And that applies to all the countries we have, because obviously all countries have their own issues.”
Six of the blockmates are FIP leaders, and all are very involved with Woodbridge—also in the blocking group are the social chair and the organizer of FIP. But beyond that, they have different interests, especially academic—VES, psychology, government, economics, social studies and philosophy, to name a few. Gamze pauses and jokes: “We probably don’t have anything in common to live with each other.” But she likes it. “We never get bored because we always have something to talk about.”
Not all of her blockmates spend all their time together; they’ve found a balance that works for them. Gamze has a lot of American friends, as do her other blockmates. “We love them,” she says. Gamze feels guilty at times that there’s no “American culture” in her blocking group, since they are in the U.S. after all. But their blockmate from France has been living in the states for the past 10 years, “so it kind of makes up for it,” she notes.
THE RACE FACTOR
Most Harvard students will say that they did not consider race to be a factor in creating their blocking group, but some end up being more racially homogenous than others.
Ijeoma B. Eboh ’11, with her blocking days long behind her, is the president of the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW). She found her best friends and blockmates through her involvement in the black community on campus, she says. Ijeoma confirms the trend that Watts and Dingman have noticed, of students either blocking with their freshman year roommates or looking outside of their rooms and finding blockmates through their extracurricular activities. These groups are naturally more homogenous, she says, because they are generally based around a shared activity or identification with a certain culture.
“People are attracted to people who are like them. It’s how people naturally develop friendships. You’re probably not going to meet some random person unless you’re doing an activity with them,” explains Ijeoma. From Ijeoma’s perspective, unless you are the type of person who puts your tray down with a group of strangers at Annenberg every day, you will find the people you connect with most at Harvard through on-campus extracurricular groups.
Ijeoma held a blocking group meeting for members of ABHW during which students ranging from sophomores to seniors reflected on their blocking experiences. Part of the discussion centered around racially homogenous blocking groups.
Nkechinyerem, also a member of ABHW and a freshman in the midst of blocking, attended the meeting and found it helpful to hear about other black students’ experiences. Nkechinyerem is not blocking with other black students at Harvard, and says that she never felt any pressure to do so, although she adds, there is a blocking group of all black girls in the freshman class. “Just because an entire blocking group is black doesn’t mean it was a conscious decision,” says Nkechinyerem, “They all just could have been good friends, or maybe they met at an ABHW meeting.”
Ijeoma sees some problems with blocking groups composed entirely of members of the same race and sometimes wishes her own blocking group was more diverse. “I always advise ABHW girls that if they are in an ‘all black’ blocking group that they do other activities and are not only immersed in the black community,” says Ijeoma. “Sometimes you can get sucked into your blocking group and it ends up being hard to make friends outside of it.” When a student came to her who was deciding between blocking with her roommates and blocking with other ABHW girls, she advised her to block with her roommates because ABHW events would always keep her in contact with the other group.
And is a blocking group composed entirely of ABHW girls any different than one composed of rowers or English majors? Amber A. James ’11, another member of ABHW who is in an all-black blocking group, believes that a so-called “black group” can contain groups of people with more diverse personalities and interests than one that seems diverse racially but actually consists of all the same “type” of person.
“My group may be all black, but we’re all so different and we’ve had such different experiences growing up. We’re such different people. We’re also socioeconomically very different. Some of us are on financial aid, some of us aren’t,” Amber explains. Race, she continues is only one factor to look at in a blocking group. It may seem to be the most salient factor if you take a snapshot of a group, but once you look past the faces, groups that look similar might not be similar at all.
And perhaps Harvard is so full of different types of people that forming groups composed entirely of one kind of person can be challenging, if not impossible. “I haven’t really noticed a racial trend here,” says Amber. “Because Harvard is such a diverse place we don’t have that many people that are cut from the same cloth.”
Benjamin J. Marek ’14, for example, is in a racially diverse blocking that includes students from Texas, New York, Florida, Minnesota, California, and England. “Maybe there are some groups where kids are really similar, have the same backgrounds, but what binds my group together is that we all just get along really well.” His group consists of students from entirely different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Racially homogenous blocking groups, he believes, are “the exception, not the norm.” Indeed, about 10 years ago, Dean Dingman recalls that the Office of Student Life collected data on a number of measurements of diversity such as race and academic interests, and at the time did not find “anything to be alarmed about.”
At an institution so thoroughly concerned with academics, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that a common thread within blocking groups is excellence in a specific academic area.
Kevin Lee ’12, in his Kirkland sweatshirt, leans back all the way in his chair and recalls his days in Math 55, the notoriously fast-paced honors abstract algebra course taken mostly by freshmen, where he met three of his blockmates. Greg, Winston, and Alex were two of Kevin’s fellow warriors in the Grays Basement “war room,” as it was known among the Math 55ers, where the nine students in the class would meet eachnight first semester. Kevin remembers spending 40 hours in the “war room” per week, sustaining his classmates with his and Winston’s snack runs to CVS. (Second semester, the class “cared less” and would pull a collective all-nighter before the problem set was due each week instead of working on it in advance, Kevin recalls.)
The other blockmates met each other in Physics 16, the most challenging of the introductory physics classes for potential concentrators. Sway, Ruby, Joy, Herman, and Alex (who also took Math 55) spent 10 to 15 hours per week on problem sets together. Kevin points to Winston H. Luo ’12 as the main link between the groups. Kevin remembers that Winston was proactive about forming a group of his close friends, so everyone in the group is pretty close with him. Winston says he knew Ruby through Chinese class, and she lived in Matthews Hall with Herman and Joy. After they decided to block, the group, which is currently made up of students of Asian origin, stayed on campus between terms their freshman year and started bonding. Winston remembers playing a lot of cards that week.
In reality, the ties go back further than that. Sway, Kevin, Winston, and Alex met during the summer of 2005 at the Math Olympiad Program (MOP) in Nebraska. MOP is a training camp that funnels students into the selection pool for the US math team, which is a team of six high school students that represents the US in the International Math Olympiad. Out of the four, Alex made the team.
Harvard’s Advanced Standing program, which gives students the opportunity to graduate in four years with a master’s degree under undergraduate housing and financial aid, also links the group together. According to Winston, who is getting his master’s in applied math, Ruby is getting hers in engineering, and Kevin and Joy are getting theirs in computer science. Kevin says this extra academic load has linked four or five of his blockmates throughout—technically three or four now, because Greg transferred to MIT and then dropped out of college altogether (“When he spontaneously decided it wasn’t just Harvard that wasn’t for him, it was school,” Kevin says with a laugh). Greg is now working for a start-up (the details of which are confidential) in Silicon Valley. In Greg’s absence, they’ve adopted another Kirkland resident to join their suite of eight, and Kevin said Greg’s leaving probably has caused him to spend less time with his blocking group as a whole, since Greg had been part of his main social circle. “I think this is true for the others; it’s certainly true for me: our primary social group is not our blocking group. But we are still good friends.”
Sway P. Chen ’12 feels the same way as her blockmate Kevin. She admits that it is a little unusual at Harvard to be surrounded by all CS and physics people, but she has friends outside the room from all different concentrations, so it balances out. One such group is their linking group in Eliot, which is “all over the map” in terms of concentrations.
Sway is a chemistry and physics concentrator, and Kevin and Winston are CS. Their other blockmates also study math, physics, or chemistry and physics, math being the common ground. “We have this habit of calling each other out on statements that are false in a strict sense,” he says, though he explains that they do this more as an inside joke than anything else. “There’s this sense that we are all on the same page when we talk and it’s this very precise, like mathematical or logical kind of way.”
Thus the common language of the Math 55ers is of course this hyper-logical attitude towards reasoning. The blockmates had a white-board in their suite last year where people would draw Rebus puzzles, as in writing “back” in the far bottom corner, signifying the expression “backed into a corner.” “Those puzzley, mathy things we can all do pretty well,” says Winston.
In order to figure out who among them would live in doubles their sophomore year, furthermore, the boys came up with a double blind preference voting system. After a four-stage process, the two people who rated each other the highest ended up in the double, but no one had to know whom anyone else had rated. Kevin speaks quickly and easily: “At some point it was more just a, ‘we think that such a system must exist, let’s try to find it,’ rather than an actual, practical thing.” Obviously they don’t know for sure if it worked, because no one knows whom anyone else rated, but they’re fairly certain. They came up with a proof that showed that it worked, so it probably did.
Fitting people together for three years can be similarly enigmatic. For some, common experience can help to keep things together.
“I just feel that blocking becomes so stressful because it seems so permanent,” says Nkechinyerem, “At the end of the day you don’t have any control over what happens besides those eight people that you choose to live with.” In a situation with such little control, it can be attractive to turn to constants.
But for some, of course, it’s simple. “The moral of the story,” says Marek, “is that you room with who you like and who you get along with and who you want to live with. Everything else, dorm, race, city or origin, socioeconomic status” he concludes, “is just a piece of the puzzle.”