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Rooms without Roommates

By Josh Mendelsohn

Harvard recently renovated and renamed Old Quincy, a single-building portion of the College’s larger Quincy House, and originally part of Leverett House. The College reopened the new building, now dubbed Stone Hall, in fall 2013 after a yearlong renovation. On a return to campus this summer, I had the opportunity to tour the remodeled Old Quincy—a place I lived for all three upper-class years a decade ago—and was quite disappointed with the focus of the remodel: single rooms. As the College continues remodeling our houses, it should consider some national trends and be patient enough to ensure the new designs ensure a good student experience.

Old Quincy’s renovation and reorientation mark the first renovation in a full-scale facelift that the school plans to give to its residential Houses. Calling the project “House Renewal,” Harvard has plans to revamp all of its Houses—in terms of both their programs and their physical appearance. The plan began in 2008, and the opening of Stone House officially marks the first complete construction project. Students are living in Leverett’s newly-renovated McKinlock Hall this fall.

It's obvious that providing students with adequate space and updated resources is a positive step. However, despite the College’s best efforts, the renovations to Stone Hall—and the plans for other House renovations—fall short in one specific and significant way: they offer more single-room living to students than ever before. Old Quincy, once dominated by shared rooms or suites, now is dominated by individual rooms with no suite connection; students don’t have roommates. While the option to have a room of one's own might appeal to many students looking for privacy and independence during college, having a single room instead of a shared space could very well be a huge detriment to new college students in terms of socialization and development.

My Harvard experience was shaped by shared space. It was the friendship with my roommate, our use of common spaces to host friends—and, as it were, to plan an activism campaign or two—getting to know so very well those who shared our entryway, some who remain close friends and colleagues, and really being able to “own” a part of the house that gave the experience character and charm and quirk. It forced us to not be too inward, to not use our room as a monastic cell of academic pursuit, but rather to make the campus our respite and our studies borne with perspective. My study carrel in Widener was where I went for quiet, focused isolation. I didn’t need to go often.

We live in a world where few notable endeavors are singular in nature. Whether in academia or business, politics, or journalism, our professional lives require us to constantly interact with and depend on our peers. Living a social, engaged life in Old Quincy was a perfect setup for leaving the ivy walls of Harvard and hitting the ground running. These days I spend my time building and investing in startups. The rise of co-working spaces and open labs should come as no surprise; they are effective and efficient and useful. Important work happens in an inherently social environment with little appreciation for personal space but a large premium on collaboration.

But the data go further. Although there is no conclusive study proving the drawbacks of living in a single dorm room, there are many experts who agree that isolating students in the early years of college can hinder their socialization. In an Atlantic piece exploring single rooming situations, Miami University of Ohio Professor Marcia Baxter Magolda addressed the risks of housing a college student alone, stating, "Learning to interact effectively with others is a central element of success in adult life in both work and personal contexts." Magolda conducted a longitudinal study on young adult development and explained that it is beneficial for students to learn to handle the complex world they live in by being regularly exposed to different perspectives, ethics and relationships, and that a great way to do this is having a college roommate. Dalton Conley, Dean of Social Sciences of NYU, agrees.  He explains that living with roommates, rather than in a single dorm room, is a great way to teach young adults to be tolerant and adaptable.

The College’s view is that these exceptionally small rooms will in fact encourage life in similarly revamped common rooms. But I fear the opposite will be true: Students will instead shut themselves in their rooms, spending their time in solitary pursuits and moving their socializing online. When instead your personal space is more communal, you are forced to do the hard work and be social – not just virtually so. Dorm rooms should not turn us inward.

By providing students with private space in which they can engage in “social” media rather than facilitating face-to-face interactions in shared dorm rooms, Harvard is actually impeding the growth of its undergraduates. Before the school finishes renewing the rest of its housing, it might consider improving facilities as they are—spaces truly social in nature—rather than creating buildings of monastic cells.

Josh Mendelsohn ’05 is a startup investor in San Francisco and New York City and a former member of the HAA Board of Directors.

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