When Mattea Mrkusic ’16 transferred to Harvard last fall from the University of Melbourne, she instantly noticed the similarities in their residential systems—and their differences.
Like the Australian institution, Harvard College also has a system of residential buildings meant to serve as hubs of campus life. But unlike the University of Melbourne, Mrkusic said House life here plays a smaller role in students’ lives.
“People put so much energy into their extracurricular and social life here that House life is a second priority for them,” said Mrkusic, who now lives in the Dudley Co-op.
Although Mrkusic has only lived at the College for less than a year, she picks out a larger, years-long trend.
In an email to undergraduates last fall, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana detailed the growing prominence of extracurriculars on campus. Referencing senior survey data from 2010, 2011, and 2013, Khurana wrote that more undergraduates appeared to be spending more time on extracurricular activities.
Administrators have, in recent years, expressed concerns that some undergraduates have prioritized their extracurricular activities at the expense of academics. But the effects of extracurriculars extend well beyond the classroom.
Even as Harvard pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into renewing the College’s residential House system with a goal of strengthening the Houses both physically and socially, many students find it difficult to balance their extracurricular commitments while also participating in House-related programming, or they choose not to.
“Over the last many years, the House leadership has felt as though they’re looking around and saying, ‘Where are the students? They’re not here,’” Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde said.
Although not a strict dichotomy, extracurriculars and House life often compete for undergraduates’ limited time. This means that some students, left rushing between class and student group meetings, spend little time in the Houses—even though administrators hail them as the cornerstone of the undergraduate experience. Others simply prefer to spend time with friends they know through their activities than those they met through their House.
“Administrators may need a reality check on the state of House life right now and what needs to happen so that it can become stronger,” former Undergraduate Council Vice President Sietse K. Goffard ’15 said.
STARTING ONE YEAR BEHIND
Through rhetoric and action, the leadership of the College unambiguously argues that its residential House system has come to define, or at least seem to embody, the undergraduate experience. On video, in writing, and in public remarks, the College makes that much clear.
“This is the Harvard experience, and this is a critical part of it,” said Khurana, who has been master of Cabot House since 2010.
Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich acknowledges that the House system is not the most efficient way to run the College—each House has its own dining hall and operates semi-autonomously—but argues that the model is purposeful.
“We’ve organized the undergraduate experience here around Yard and House life. That’s really a cornerstone of what the Harvard undergraduate experience is,” Friedrich said.
But for a number of undergraduates, extracurriculars complicate the transition into the Houses, which starts in March of freshman year. By the time upperclassmen descend on the Yard in a frenzy on Housing Day to welcome freshmen to their future homes along the River or in the Quad, many freshmen have already joined at least one student group and, more or less, found a stable group of friends.
“Oftentimes, that’s the case—that students are so drawn into their extracurriculars in their first year that by the time they've gotten to the Houses, they’ve oftentimes made friends that are reflected in their blocking groups, and then they have their activities that connect them to everything but the House,” Lassonde said, referencing what he said is a common perception among House staff. “By the time they move into the House, the game is up.”
Michael C. Ranen, the freshman resident dean for Ivy Yard and a former Winthrop House tutor, said freshman year is often a time of flux for students who are trying to figure out how extracurricular activities will define their time in college.
Although Ranen emphasized that extracurriculars are a “huge part” of the undergraduate learning experience, he said Houses find it difficult to break up pre-established friends in blocking groups and extracurricular organizations.
When students move into their upperclassman Houses at the start of sophomore year, their extracurricular commitments stay with them, keeping some students too busy to participate in House life and still others uninterested.
When Kevin Liang ’16 was first assigned to Adams House, he was excited to become involved in House life. But it became difficult for the former UC representative and former c0-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association to balance the time commitments of extracurriculars and still actively participate in House events. Although Liang praised efforts by House administrators and students to organize programming, the mere time commitment of extracurriculars can be daunting, he said.
“When you are involved in things outside the House, especially if you join them freshman year, you kind of get sucked into them and dedicate most of your time outside of class to those extracurriculars,” Liang said.
Jacob R. Carrel ’16, president of the Harvard College Democrats, said he is often late to Winthrop stein club events on Thursday nights this year because of board meetings. While Carrel said he actively participates in many Winthrop events, other events also compete for his time, meaning that he may have to choose extracurricular commitments that conflict.
“We’re competing for students’ times, and students have ready-made communities outside the Houses,” said Thomas S. Wooten ’08, a tutor in Quincy House who has researched the role of extracurriculars at the College.
Mather House Master Michael D. Rosengarten similarly said he thinks that as both academics and clubs become more demanding of time, it can detract from House life.
“Extracurriculars often have a purchase on students in a way that going to hear a speaker, even in your House, can't if it conflicts,” Lassonde said.
Further, while some administrators say the Quad fosters a unique sense of community among its residents, and Friedrich adds that the College has invested resources in improving shuttle service to mitigate distance problems, some students say living in the Quad can make striking a balance between House life and extracurriculars harder.
Shuffling between the Quad and River Houses during the week for various students groups meetings, Goffard said he ate about twice as many meals in Kirkland as he did in Currier last semester, leading him to feel less connected with House life.
“There can be oftentimes this fundamental conflict between extracurriculars and House life, and I think that’s pronounced in the Quad,” Goffard said. “For people who live in the Quad, that sacrifice is much more real.”
Santiago Pardo ’16, co-chair of Adams House Committee, said his House’s location in Harvard Square makes it easier for residents to balance the two.
Administrators and House masters, for their part, say they recognize the stress that academics and extracurriculars place on House life. Lassonde said the Houses should work to attract their students to events.
“The burden is on the Houses to do that, ” Lassonde said. “We should be thinking more about the structure that makes it possible for students to become more connected with their Houses earlier on.”
Administrators, who argue that the House system exposes undergraduates to diversity in a way that other facets of student life do not, have reacted to some students’ choices to spend more time outside the residential system with concern. Some administrators worry that students who ramp up their involvement in groups outside the Houses may be missing out on a unique opportunity to befriend a cross-section of Harvard’s diverse student body.
While some student groups choose members through comp or application processes, students are randomly sorted into their Houses.
“A House is the most naturally diverse place on campus,” Khurana said, arguing that if students spend the majority of their time with people similar to high school peers, they are not taking “full advantage of what Harvard College experience…is set up to offer you.”
Harvard has specifically structured the College’s Houses to offer students a special social experience, according to Friedrich. The several hundred upperclassmen ideally interact in dining halls and through an array of traditional events each House hosts, from low-key discussions and weekly study breaks to extravagant dinners and formals.
Still, Tara Raghuveer ’14, a former UC president who lived off campus her senior year, challenged the assumption that all students should necessarily find friends through their Houses.
“It can be patronizing for undergraduates to hear over and over again that they should build community in this way or they should find their friends through ‘X’ thing instead of ‘Y’ thing,” Raghuveer said.
Indeed, many student leaders say they are already finding fulfilling and diverse circles of friends through their extracurriculars. Colin J. F. Diersing ’16, the president of the Institute of Politics, said he has met people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives through his involvement with the IOP. He added that this may be a result of the IOP’s size and focus on politics.
While Diersing said he thinks that his House, Cabot, is a “wonderful community” and a “good place to come home to,” he spends a lot of his time at the IOP and enjoys it.
Liang said finding friends through his extracurriculars has been easier than through his House because group members share interests and spend significant time together.
CREATING AN INTERSECTION
Facing some students’ decisions to spend more time time outside their Houses than administrators might hope, some House affiliates are considering how to make House life and extracurriculars intersect.
Many Houses have theater and arts programming, according to Friedrich, while Goffard said some student groups are hosting more events in the Houses in an attempt to bridge the gap between extracurriculars and the House system. Students groups can book House common spaces such as common rooms and kitchens and utilize dining halls for meeting space.
Groups’ use of House amenities demonstrate the potential for extracurriculars to work in concert with the Houses and strengthen House life, Friedrich said.
Still, the reality remains that House events often struggle to draw many student attendees. In his experience as a tutor, Wooten said House staff often consider events successful if they attract a number of students that totals above the single digits. They attribute small crowds to students’ busy schedules, he said.
Still, students emphasize that participation in extracurricular activities and House life are not mutually exclusive. House Committees, for example, blend both House life and extracurricular life. According to Wooten, many HoCo members interviewed for his research said they considered HoCo their most important extracurricular commitment.
Andrew D. Clark ’16, a member of Currier HoCo, said House involvement and extracurriculars are “definitely competing for time,” but it is important to have both.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” said Meghamsh Kanuparthy ’16, Kirkland’s HoCo co-chair and treasurer of the UC.
But the reality of extracurriculars’ prominence in students’ lives remains.
“I don’t know if House life is ever going to be as big as people’s extracurriculars, unless it is their extracurricular...but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Carrel said. “I think we still have a pretty strong House life.”
In contrast to administrators’ vision of House life as the “cornerstone” of a Harvard College education, Goffard said extracurriculars—not House life—have defined his experience at Harvard.
“The majority of the time I spent was not in Currier House,” Goffard said. “What I will remember in 10 or 20 years will probably be the UC and other experiences like that—extracurriculars more so than House life.”
—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.
—Staff writer Quynh-Nhu Le can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @qnhule.
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