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Six Guys Named J.

First-Year Housing Source Of Friendships, Headaches

By Laura E. Rosenbaum

During their first year of college students face new challenges: lectures replace classes, professors replace teachers and a dormitory replaces the home.

When first-years arrive in the fall, many find the toughest adjustment is learning to live with each other.

Before the year even starts, the Freshman Dean's Office (FDO) does its best to minimize roommate strife by sending incoming first-years a lengthy questionaire to help match them with compatible roommates.

For example, the form asks students about their sleep patterns about their sleep patterns and musical taste. But some students still hate their roommates' show tunes or alternative music or 10 p.m. bedtime.

After fourteen hours of Garth Brooks, some first-years begin to question the attention paid to their rooming forms.

"The administrators get together, close their eyes, and point," one skeptical student says of the assignment process.

But the administrators themselves say the process is a little more complex.

The three assistant deans of freshman, David B. Fithian, Eleanor A. Sparagana and D.E. Lorraine Sterritt, each assign rooms to a third of the incoming first-years.

"It is a really fun and exiting process which takes us almost two months in the summer," Sparagana says. "It is imperfect, but we do try to make everyone feel at home when they arrive at Harvard in the fall."

Sparagana says there is no magic formula for creating a rooming group. But, she says, some of the most important criteria include how many roommates students want and how social they want their room to be.

"Those seem more enduring and important than some of the other more minor things for overall harmony in a room," she says.

Sparagana says the deans try to find the right balance between common interests and diverse backgrounds. A goal of the FDO is that roommates learn from each other, she says.

The process doesn't lend itself to exact groupings, Sparagana says, because the deans rely on hard-to-quantify information.

In addition to basic facts like sleeping hours and musical taste, the rooming form also asks students to describe themselves in more general terms. Sparagana says that while some self-descriptions seem unusual to her they probably made perfect sense to the students who wrote them.

"Some people designate themselves as muppet fans or Beatles fans," Sparagana says. "Some people want to bring pets, including lizards and snakes, but we tell them no."

While students sometimes include information the deans don't know what to do with--like their favorite muppet--students aren't asked about potentially important factors like ethnic or religious background, Sparagana says.

After assigning students to rooming groups, the deans place the groups in entryways. According to Sparagana, the deans aim to create "a microcosm of the College" in each dorm.

Odd Couples

But despite the careful process administrators describe, some rooming combinations seem too incredible to be coincidental.

Last year four first-year women shared a Strauss suite. The group was completely ordinary, except that their names--Holland, Holmes, Hong, and Hootnick--followed almost one after the next in the student directory.

"Because it was in alphabetical order, I didn't realize it was my rooming group," Danielle A. Hootnick '99 says. "I thought it was something from the freshman register."

Hootnick says she only realized after speaking to the other women that they would actually live together.

In fact, seven Strauss residents appeared in almost unbroken alphabetical order in last year's directory.

"I had my suspicions all year," Hootnick says. "It was too bizarre."

And this year, six J-men also test the limits of coincidence. Josh, Josh, John, John, Jessie and Al (Ju) share a Canaday Suite.

"It was a great joke," Josh E. Penzner '00 says. "Finding out that we all had very similar names was very funny."

According to Penzner, the six guys named J. get along well. But names aside, he says, they are a motley crew.

"It's not like we are very much the same people. We span East Coast to West Coast, from New York to Oregon. People-wise and interestwise and belief-wise, we are very diverse."

Although bizarre name coincidences suggest a sense of humor in the FDO, the deans responsible insist that they play no games.

Sparagana says that even the J-men were a chance grouping.

"I wasn't looking at the names when I matched them up," she says. "It was quite coincidental, based upon their interests, both academic and extracurricular."

Does it work?

Jenny L. Allard, a Matthews Hall proctor, praises the room assignment system.

"Sometimes I'm amazed at how well people get along," she says. "I've never had cases where roommates could not get along. Even if they had differences, they were able to live together and maybe parted ways at the end of the year."

"[The assistant deans] don't want to deal with 1,600 people who are dissatisfied with their roommates, so you bet they do a lot of work on the front end to avoid problems," Allard says.

The deans often succeed in creating compatible rooming groups, like the Massachusetts Hall suite of Runa Islam '00.

"We're all really good friends," Islam says. "Even from the beginning, I thought it was really sort of ideal."

According to Islam, she and her suitemates get along because they are flexible and have similar interests.

"We all take special care to know what's going on in our lives," Islam says. "Last term if someone had a mid-term or a paper, we'd put a note up on our door to wish them luck."

Islam says she is not sure how the deans assembled her room.

According to one of Islam's roommates, Cameron "Camy" A. Kinloch '00, Dean of Freshman Elizabeth S. Nathans visited their room during Freshman Week.

Kinloch says Nathans told them that height was one criteria for the roommate combination because of the dorm's slanting ceilings. Islam, the tallest of the roommates, is 5'4."

But as most students know, not all rooming groups can get along.

"Our situation is sort of rare," Islam says, adding that she and her three roommates are planning to live together again next year. "I don't know a lot of people who are really happy with their rooming situation."

Even when roommates are unhappy, the College encourages them to stay together.

"We are quite intent upon having students learn from one another and making their rooming situation work," Sparagana says. "It's a good lesson about life because we don't all get to choose all of the things that have an impact upon us. People have to learn how to deal."

But despite these efforts, every year some students leave their original rooms. One Pennypacker room started with four students but now has only two. The answering machine list the names of the people who are "currently" living there.

One of the Pennypacker roommates left school and another,Brian S. Anderson'00, was asked by the administration to move to another room.

"It's caused great pain in me to have to move," says Anderson, who now lives in Greenough. "I'm alone. I'm away from my friends."

Anderson says the deans moved him because his religious practices (he is American Indian) involve burning sage. The sage, which is similar to incense, bothered his roommates, who complained to the administration, he says.

Although the rooming form sent to in-coming students last summer asks about smoking, Anderson didn't think the question applied to him.

"I'm not a smoker. I put no on that list," Anderson says. Anderson says he still feels the form is unclear. He says he has spoken to Dean Nathans about changing the form.

Anderson says he is unhappy that he was forced to transfer. Furthermore, he says, he was at first forbidden to burn his sage in his new room, until he threatened to sue for discrimination.

"I thought the university was accepting of different ways of life and religions, and it turned out that I guess they weren't," Anderson says. "I guess I just would have appreciated an understanding because this is something that is important to me."

The rooming form for the class of 2001 has been changed, but it still does not ask about sage burning or other religious practices that could cause conflict.

Since there will be no smoking in any first-year dorms next year, the new housing form does not ask anything about smoking. New problems may accompany the policy, as non-smokers who live with smokers may be bothered even if their roommate doesn't smoke in the room.

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