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Living on the Edge

A Handful of Students Brave Life Outside the Houses To Find Contentment in Off-Campus Apaptments

By Radi M. Annab, Contributing Reporter

Mid-way through his sophomore year at Harvard, Bartle Bull'93 and his roommate moved into a two-bedroom suite with hardwood floors, a vast kitchen, a sweeping bay window and "seriously high" ceilings.

And thanks to a Mass. Ave. location just a stone's throw away from Widener library, Bull can literally roll out of bed at 10:05 a.m. and make it to his 10 a.m. class before the professor have even flipped on the mike.

Not exactly the kind of pad you would expect from the Adams House sophomore lottery. But then again, Bull doesn't live in Adams House anymore.

Like a handful of other independent-minded students, Bull traded in his Harvard Harvard-assigned room for an off-campus apartment, and he says he's never regretted the move.

Bull says living off-campus allows him to "escape the madding crowd...the tiring thing of being around Harvard people every moment of one's life, which is exhausting."

"When you are a little bit distant, you enjoy Harvard more," adds Bull.

Mortimer Sackler '93, who moved into an apartment on Mass. Ave. after living in Quincy House for one semester, sums up off-campus living in a nutshell:

"I have more space. It's more comfortable. It's better food."

Yet only about 3 percent of Harvard under graduates choose to live in off-campus housing, according to Housing Officer Catherine M. Millett.

The remaining 97 percent live in one of the College's 12 residential houses or in the cooperatives, Millett said.

That puts Harvard way below the Ivy League and national averages for non-residential full-time students.

At Yale University, which features a house system similar to Harvard's, 10 percent of all undergraduates live off-campus.

Sky-High Rents

Tales of outrageously expensive price tags on apartments around the Square keep many Harvard students in the houses and out of the real estate ads.

But although prime apartment locations around Harvard Yard don't come cheap, many students succeed in finding reasonably priced housing, often matching on-campus costs.

"The price comes out to be almost exactly what we paid in the house," says Rachel S. Lewis "92, who moved off-campus from Currier House with boyfriend Kurt G. Strovink '92 in September.

And even students who admit to paying more say living off-campus is worth it.

"I knew before I moved that it would be a little bit more expensive to live off-campus," says Gabriella C. Petschek '92, who moved from Lowell House to an apartment behind the Radcliffe Quadrangle at the beginning of her senior year.

"But it teaches you a lot about responsibility because you really have to think: am I going to make ends meet?" she adds.

Bull says he and his current roommate probably would not have moved off-campus is they had not found their current apartment.

They live in a University-owned building right above Gnomon Copy and the Ultimate Bagle Company on Mass. Ave., with twin. six-foot windows overlooking the Yard.

But even though Harvard owns the apartment, the cost of living smack in the center of the Square runs significantly higher than living on-campus. Bull and his roommate each pay about $540 per month for rent.

By contrast, rooming in the houses costs $2900 per year, according to the 1991-92 Handbook for Students--or about $3.60 per month.

"It's more money living off-campus, but it's worth it," says Bull.

The Benefits

So what exactly makes life off-campus so appealing to those 3 percent who choose to move out of the houses?

For one thing, non-resident students point out that apartment life offers much greater freedom than house life. Petschek says her escape the many rules and regulations which go hand-in-hand with living in a house.

"A room is a room. It's just the can do whatever you want with [your apartment]," says Petschek.

Petschek lives alone and says this allows her to pursue her hobby, painting.

"Sometimes I want to go home and relax, put the phone off the hook, but you can't do that with roommates," says Petschek.

Students also say they enjoy the tranquility of living away from campus during busy reading and exam periods--a benefit that becomes crucially important when thesis-writing time rolls around.

"I get work done when I should and socialize when I should because people don't just drop by," Lewis says.

And living alone also helps foster personal independence, which is often undermined by house life.

Lewis says she does not feel isolated as a non-resident student, "but I do feel I have more autonomy. I have control of my own life."

Others say that the responsibility of digging up rent money every month builds a solid "real world experience" lacking in house life.

"You really feel self sufficient ... I'm ready next year to deal with anything," says T.C. Haldi '92, a former Currier resident who moved off-campus in January of her junior year.

And contrary to the belief that most social activity at Harvard revolves around meals in the dining hall and house parties, the former house residents say moving off-campus hasn't slowed down their social lives one bit.

"A lot of friends come here, I have a sofa that is permanent to [my friends'] use," says Petschek.

Off-campus residents can remain on the meal plan, and they can even choose from several alternative meal plans not available to house residents. But superior food is still one of the reasons most commonly cited for moving out of the houses.

"if we aren't eating any Harvard food, we must be getting better food," says Bull.

A Room With a View

Students find apartments more pleasant than house rooms not only because of extra space, but for the little touches that make an apartment more like a home than a drab dorm.

"We have really nice wood floors, a lot of win-dows and clean white walls. We live on the third floor which gives us a nice view," Lewis says.

"The thing that I love about [living off-campus] is that I live on a residential street," says Haldi. "There are kids in the street playing soft-ball...It's a normal healthy environment."

But if off-campus life is so great, how come 97 percent of Harvard undergraduates don't seem to have figured it out yet?

The answer, it seems, is that no matter how cramped the dorm room or tasteless the food, Harvard's houses provide a sense of camaraderie and belonging which is hard to reproduce off-campus.

The tradition of identifying with a particular house is so firmly entrenched at Harvard that it plays a major role in keeping the majority of undergraduates on-campus, Millett says.

"So much of going to Harvard is living is a house," says Millett. "It's a way of identification. When you talk about Harvard, people talk about what house they lived in."

Even off-campus students sing the praises of the positive aspects of house life, choosing to remain tied to their assigned houses as non-resident affiliates.

"Harvard has a strong and centralized, active house system and if everyone moved off, it would have a negative impact," Bull says.

Haled says students should try living in their assigned houses for at least one year after leaving the Yard, because house life gives undergraduates a chance to make friends.

"There's definitely something to be said about the house system," says Haled. "There's definite bonding that goes on there."

Students who do decide to move off-campus often find and apartment through Harvard Real Estate, Inc., which lists both Harvard-owned and private homes. The agency also matches up students looking for roommates.

Harvard's low percentage of off-campus students is surprising when compared to the much higher rates at other Ivy League colleges.

At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, about 56.5 percent of undergraduates live off-campus this year, according to Eleni Zatz, director of off-campus housing Traditionally, the university has not been residential, Zatz says.

But the surplus of inexpensive student apartments in Philadelphia is what really encourages students to move off-campus, she says.

"Students live off-campus because it's cheaper," Zatz says. "There are some vacancies on campus. This leads me to believe that people choose to live off-campus."

At Brown University, 23 percent of undergraduates live off-campus, according to Gail Medbury, director of rental facilities at Brown.

The number of non-resident students at Princeton University rose slightly this year, with about 7 percent of all undergraduates living off-campus now, according to Randi Schweriner of the Princeton undergraduate office.

Since first and second-year students are required to live on-campus, this figure translates to 10 percent for juniors and seniors.

"Housing in Princeton is becoming cheaper with the recession," said Schweriner.

A Different Experience

So far, the recession hasn't worked any wonders at bringing nosebleed-high Cambridge rents within student-budget range.

But for that 3 percent of Harvard undergraduates seeking independence and sunny suites with singles and a kitchen, the benefits go a long way toward balancing out the cost.

"It's a different student experience," says Putsches. "I don't know whether it's better or worse; it's different."

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