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Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony this past May, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith stood in front of Old Quincy and declared, “The House system is the institution at the very heart of the Harvard experience.”
Smith’s words echo a common refrain at Harvard. Unlike at many of its peer institutions, at Harvard, undergraduates are expected to live on campus for all four years of their college experience.
In this environment, Harvard has prioritized projects to improve House life—pouring more than $1 billion into its ambitious plan to renew its 12 undergraduate Houses, and launching several social space initiatives at the House level.
But despite these efforts, every year, a few students cannot be enticed to stay in the Houses.
According to Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, about 120 sophomores, juniors, and seniors chose to live off-campus in non-University housing this academic year. An additional 32 undergraduates chose to live in the Dudley Co-operative Society, which offers alternative housing for College students.
This week Harvard’s Houses prepare to welcome freshmen into their communities, but those who no longer live on campus say that, for them, the Housing Day hype is overblown. Students interviewed for this article who no longer live in Harvard housing say they are not so much drawn to the perks of off-campus life than turned off by a residential system in which they did not feel at home.
SEEKING A SPACE OF THEIR OWN
This past fall, Martin S. Molina Hernandez ’15 lived in a cramped two-room suite in Leverett with three other roommates. He often found it difficult to concentrate when he was living with his friends in the dorm, finding himself caught up in late night conversations and frequently getting distracted.
By the end of the semester, he realized he needed a change.
“I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I feel like I need [my own room],” he said. “You could always get a single at Sigma Chi, so I chose to live there.”
Hernandez, who is a member of Sigma Chi, now lives at the fraternity’s house on Mass. Ave. Hernandez said he enjoys having a place to himself that he can decorate and make into his own environment, which he felt he could not do in the dorms.
“You have the freedom to do whatever you want with your living environment,” he said. “I’m originally from Venezuela and my grandmother got me a hammock from there, so I drilled it into my wall by myself.”
Hernandez is not alone in feeling that Harvard housing does not always allow for enough personal space. Ellie M. Reilly ’13, a former Pforzheimer House resident, said that students’ disregard for their neighbors made it difficult for her to study on the weekends.
“There were people once yelling at 3 a.m. at Pfoho—blasting music and having a party until early in the morning,” said Reilly, who now lives in Somerville with three other roommates.
Reflecting on that memory, Reilly said she is “so glad” she lives off-campus.Reilly said that another perk of living off-campus is getting to cook for herself and live independently.
“I can have weird sleep schedules, but then it’ll happen that I wake up at 9 p.m. at night and the dining hall would be closed,” Reilly said. “It’s really nice to have food in my pantry and to be able to cook whenever I want.”
Like other undergraduates who live off-campus, Reilly said she can enjoy the social scene at Harvard but is also able to leave it behind and return to her own, quiet place, which she said she could not find in a dorm room.
“At home, I can just have silence and do my work.” Reilly said. “If I want that sense of community, I’ll go to Harvard.”
LOOKING FOR AN INDEPENDENT LIFESTYLE
Sahil A. Khatod ’14, who moved from Pfoho to the Dudley Co-op, said that he disliked the culture of dependence fostered by the Houses and their administrators.
“I didn’t like the fact that people did everything for you,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere that was really community-based, where people needed each other, there was no social hierarchy, and people were very friendly to each other.”
Khatod is one of several students who said they moved off campus because they disliked the feeling of being coddled and controlled by the Harvard House system.
At the Co-op where Khatod now lives, students cook and clean for themselves in accordance with a system that requires residents to complete a certain number of chores each week. This arrangement, he said, creates a strong sense of community among its residents.
Especially with Harvard cracking down on alcohol through new policies like banning high-risk drinking games and setting guidelines for private student parties, some students who live off campus said the prospect of escaping the administrators and policies that govern the Houses served as a further draw.
Hernandez disliked the requirements that he shut down parties after Harvard’s 2 a.m. deadline and officially register gatherings with large groups of friends. He said he thinks the sense of community in the Sigma Chi fraternity house is stronger in part because of the absence of resident deans and tutors and the constant supervision they provide.
“It can be a bureaucratic process to simply have a few people hanging out in your room,” said Hernandez. “Here, I can do that whenever I want to without worrying.”
For Hernandez, living outside of the Harvard House system provides “a sense of freedom and autonomy” even while he is able to remain connected with the College community through his friends.
“I definitely wanted to experience a lifestyle that’s more similar to the ‘real’ world where I have to fend for myself rather than being in a glorified boarding school,” he said. “I love Harvard but I just grew out of it.”
Khatod said that even in the Co-op, where residents must adhere to some of the same policies as students who live in the Houses, he feels the impact of supervision from resident deans and tutors to a far lower degree than he did on-campus.
The Co-op, like the Houses, has its own resident tutors, but Khatod said he does not “feel they interfere much” with him.
“I don’t feel they’re in positions of authority, but that they’re part of the community,” he said.
REACTING TO EXPENSIVE PRICE
For some students, the price of Harvard housing, which for the 2012-2013 academic year was $8,366 for room rental alone, is motivation enough to search for cheaper alternative housing options.
The price tag of a Harvard dining plan, which cost $5,264 this past year, can serve as a further monetary deterrent.
According to the Student Handbook, Harvard’s Financial Aid Office assumes that students who choose to live off-campus have “the same room, board, and personal expenses as students living on campus.”
Khatod said that the difference in room and board rates made living in the Dudley Co-op cheaper for him than living in a Harvard House. Meals at the Co-op, not including lunch, cost $185 per semester.
As a result of living off-campus, Khatod estimated that he saves “around $6,000 a semester total.”
Students who do not pay the full cost of board are able to purchase dining plans of 5, 10, or 21 meals in Harvard’s dining halls, but many choose to eat most of their meals at home or out at restaurants.
Ann M. Chiaramonte, an accounting assistant with the Harvard University Dining Services, wrote in an email that these plans range in cost from around $860 to $2,500 a semester.
Tania T. Rivers-Moore ’15, a quarter-boarder at the Co-op who took last semester off to travel across the United States on a Greyhound bus, said she saves thousands of dollars by living off-campus and eating her meals in the Co-op.
“It’s still significantly cheaper,” she said. “And [all] I had to do was press one button online.”
—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @michiferreol.
—Staff writer D. Simone Kovacs can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @simkovacs.
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