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Commencement 2010

Fight Stereotypes


By Nancy Yousef

We all remember our Harvard interview senior year in high school. "Diversity is the name of the game in Cambridge," says that Class of '49 alumnus.

But this diversity that admissions officers promise us and that we enjoy our freshman year is a rare sight once we move three steps closer to the River, or half a mile away, as the case may be.

Some call it stereotype, some call it reputation, some even euphemistically call it "character," but the fact remains that under the present House selection system first-choice Houses have acquired and continue to perpetuate insularity and skewed perceptions of the College population on on the whole.

Historically, the first-choice Houses have acquired reputations that seem attractive to certain groups of students. Athlees say they like to come home to other athletes, minorities say they like the support of other minorities in their Houses and student leaders say it's easier to organize activities when they have more interested people in their Houses. Yet to every argument there is a counter-argument, and in the case of the housing lottery, the counter-argument has been too long ignored.

Although these various reputations might appear attractive to certain students, they at the same time turn-other students away. The situation has reached a point where freshmen fear being associated with a certain House's "stereotype" and in turn select their first-choice House by identifying where they don't want to go thus making the current system more a process of elimination than first choice maximization.

Freshmen who quickly learn how to play the lottery game frequently pick Houses they really don't want to spend three years in, knowing that this strategy will keep them away from the dreaded Quad. A Kirkland House sophomore, for example, says she knew she'd get in to the River House that didn't fill until the second round of the lottery yet admits now that she feels alienated from the social mainstream.

The reputations of certain first-choice Houses have led administrators like Dean of the College John B. Fox Jr. '59 to say he has "discomfort" with the current housing system in which Houses fall way short of the ideal "microcosm" of the College.

Instead, Houses tend to acquire a social focal point, causing students on the periphery to feel alienated in their own Houses which was originally designed to provide a familial center of identification. Opponents to the random or modified random system say group identification in Houses would be destroyed by such a change. Yet they fail to realize that while people can always find some friends in the 350-or-more-person Houses,' smaller groups of people often feel shoved to the outer parameters of the social milieu dominated by a strong central group on which the reputation is founded. In addition, the random system's opponents forget that students can find crossroads outside their Houses where they can associate with students sharing their interests. Football players, for example, can congregate at practice, in the gym and at team-organized parties.

Students in Houses with strong reputations soon grow tired of being labelled with certain personality traits simply on the basis of where they sleep and eat. Students should never be in the awkward position of justifying their individuality because they've been prejudged on the basis of their House affiliation.

Opponents to some form of random system cite the all-American, freedom-of-choice amendment to support the current system yet one wonders if, in this case, this principle is doing more harm than good. It seems we no longer have an ideal free-choice system anyway, since anyone wanting to avoid a heavily "stereotyped" House now has very few choices.

Yet a far larger problem with the current system is the insularity it breeds. It is ludicrous to perpetuate a system that bears no likeness to that Big Place we all must eventually enter called The Real World. And insularity breeds close-mindedness, which is precisely the opposite of what that Harvard interviewer told you you'd gain in your four years here.

Administrators desiring change say they cannot think of a viable alternative to the present plan. Perhaps they should look closely at the so-called modified random plan in the council's referendum. Under this plan, students would be able to select their rooming group and to block with other rooming groups but groups would be placed randomly in a House. This system would allow freshman friends and roommates to live together for the next three years but would at the same time obliterate the crippling stereotypes at many of the more popular Houses.

With a random system students would no longer have to walk half a mile up Garden St. to find the diversity that admissions officer promised, nor would anyone have to apologize for a House's reputation. Students would remember that the world is not compartmentalized into jock, musician and study-worm havens, and on the flip side they would not feel alienated in Houses burdened with these stereotypes.

The modified random system no doubt represents a radical departure from the current system, a change that would be much more palatable if the long-awaited Quad renovations took place in the near future. No matter what system is chosen, the College must make the Quad a more desirable place to live, possibly attractive enough to put Cabot, North and Currier Houses on the upper tier of desirability.

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Commencement 2010Class of 1985