UPDATED: March 29, 2015, at 4:38 p.m.
Today, Housing Day, upperclassmen storm the Yard in a flurry of competitive spirit, welcoming freshmen to their assigned Houses. While the vast majority of those students will remain in their Houses, dozens of students each year move off campus.
According to Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven, about two percent of Harvard undergraduates, or 120 students, live off-campus.
These off-campus students have, for various reasons, elected to opt out of the Residential House system, which administrators have called a “cornerstone” of Harvard’s undergraduate experience.
Some students are older than the typical undergraduate population and have professions outside Cambridge or families to raise. Others move to escape the stresses they experience in a House or to share an apartment with friends. For a portion of these students, buoyed by the College’s financial aid system, living off-campus is financially feasible, even sometimes less expensive as a result of the reduced meal cost. Others are willing to sacrifice some extra money for what they call a better living situation.
TREKKING TO CAMPUS
Sometimes, when it’s warm, Jane H. Newbold ’15 rides her bike from her apartment in Jamaica Plain—a neighborhood in Boston—to campus. Most days this past winter, she took the T.
At times, like Anthony V. Buda ’15—another off-campus student who lives about 45 minutes away on the train in East Boston—Newbold spent three hours stuck underground while the MBTA “went haywire” struggling to establish regular service after this year’s large amount of snow.
Despite the hassles of distance, both Buda and Newbold made the conscious decision to live far off campus when they returned to Harvard after extended leaves of absence. They say their experiences pursuing professional interests during time off played into this choice.
Newbold worked a variety of jobs, including the one she currently maintains at Tuft University’s Center for Translational Science Education. Buda performed around theworld as part of the death metal band Revocation.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to be immersed in the kind of mindspace that is created by a bunch of people in their very early 20s at this time in my life,” Buda says of his decision to live off-campus.
According to Buda, the apartment in Boston was simply cheaper than living elsewhere in Cambridge. Newbold, who worked in Boston during her leave and plans to stay in the area after graduation, says she did not want to give up the apartment in which she had already been living.
Although they both say they are enjoying their return to Harvard, Buda points to challenges that come with living far from campus.
“I do feel like an outsider,” Buda says.
Living so far away, Buda says he must strictly regulate his time to minimize his commutes into Cambridge—a contrast to his prior experience living in Quincy House.
“I can remember being in Quincy and living with ease. You’re where you need to be in five minutes,” he says, adding that he also misses the social opportunities that House life provides.
Lack of private space can also be an issue, Buda says. On long days in the Yard, he is constantly in public spaces like campus libraries and cafes.
“You kind of learn where there are individual bathrooms with individual locks,“ he says.
Newbold says she is successfully re-connecting to Harvard—an experience she largely credits to the Dudley Cooperative.
Newbold is a “quarterboarder” at the Co-op. The arrangement costs “a quarter” of the typical amount of money and household responsibilities of a regular boarder, and allows Newbold to enjoy a “quarter” of the Co-op’s home-cooked meals and what she described as its tight-knit community.
“It would be really different if I didn’t have that,” she says.
While Buda lives off-campus, he recommends that students live on-campus and be “fully immersed” in Harvard’s environment. He has already had that experience, he says. Newbold, however, is more cautious.
“Moving off campus doesn’t teach you to magically integrate off-campus and oncampus life well.... There’s a learning curve,” Newbold says. “Don’t be afraid of [living offcampus]— sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.”
CLOSE BUT NOT FAR ENOUGH
Tara Raghuveer ’14 and Emma R. Lipshultz ’15 did not live or block together, but both shared similar experiences by moving out of Currier House their senior year. Although Lipshultz’s apartment sits in close proximity to the College—it is just a five minute walk from the Quad—she says that the new living space has meant a world of difference.
Like Lipshultz and her two blockmates, Raghuveer and many of her friends moved off campus during senior year after feeling that their living situation in Currier, where they say they did not have common rooms, made it difficult for their respective blocking groups to feel connected.
Lipshultz says that living in an apartment has removed her from what she said was the business characteristic of everyday life at Quincy House, where she had lived before transferring to Currier, and the broader College. She says that she is now more productive, sets her own schedule, and finally has the chance to catch up on her “cooking grind.”
“I’m kind of removed from all of that, the craziness that is on campus,” Lipshultz says.
Ingrid Y. Li ’17, who lives in an apartment off campus, says the proximity between campus and where she lives has allowed her to stay connected. She only misses study breaks and House events that offered free food.
For Raghuveer, who says she enjoyed living in Currier House for two years, living off campus allowed her to set her own pace, become closer to her friends, and even, according to her, save about a couple thousand dollars in food and living expenses.
Li says, however, that living off-campus may not be feasible for all students. In her experience, the room and board amount of Harvard’s cost of attendance—which totals $14,669 this year—would not cover her expenses. Aside from apartment costs, because Li is no longer on a meal plan, she buys groceries from Whole Foods and eats out when not cooking.
“Living off-campus is something that you need the money to do,” she says. But it’s worth it for the additional freedom and increased productivity, she adds.
Jack C. Smith ’15 says that his current home, where he has lived since sophomore year, is his most permanent, consecutive residence. Smith is not referring to one of the College’s 12 residential Houses; he is talking about the Sigma Chi fraternity house on Massachusetts Avenue.
At a college of about 6,700 undergraduates, Smith openly acknowledges that he is a rare student, having never lived in the Houses. When he was a junior, he had, in fact, made a resolution to move back into Kirkland for the following academic year, worrying that he was not spending enough time with his blockmates. But when Smith says he missed a deadline for housing forms, and would have to go into the Kirkland housing lottery by himself, he decided to stay off campus.
Originally, Smith had worried that moving off campus could cost more than Harvard housing, or even worse, that the move could affect his level of financial aid.
According to Sally C. Donahue, director of financial aid, a student’s scholarship is not affected by a move off-campus, unless in the rare circumstance that they are local and live at home. Off-campus students are simply not charged Harvard’s room and board fee, which may, for students on significant financial aid, generate a credit they can withdraw through a refund.
As it turned out, Smith says he has saved money, in large part due to cooking on his own and renting a small room in the fraternity house.
“I lived in this really bad and tiny room for a while, but it’s not that much worse than most River singles,” Smith says. “That was significantly cheaper.”
On the whole, Smith says his experiences off campus are not that much unlike those of students in DeWolfe housing, except that tutors do not live in his residence.
Sure, he has to take out the trash, and Dorm Crew does not clean the house’s bathroom, but laundry is free, marking a nice bonus often not offered in the Houses, Smith says.
And while the fraternity house can be loud on Fridays and Saturdays, during the week the atmosphere is mostly docile, according to Smith. He also completes a bulk of his coursework at Lamont—his “second home.”
For Smith, blending his two houses—Kirkland and the fraternity—has been somewhat challenging, but not impossible. He says he participated in a Kirkland Drama Society play last semester, and occasionally attends Kirkland events, or goes back to see his blockmates.
“I like to think that I’m a pretty good off-campus House person,” he says. Beyond the dining hall experience, Smith doesn’t think he has missed out on much.
“Harvard likes to think that the House system matters a lot and it certainly is a cool, unique thing that we have,” Smith says. “But I don’t think it adds nearly as much as people say it does.”
For some students, living off campus is not a choice, but is required by personal circumstances.
When Logan E. Leslie ’16 came to Harvard from Afghanistan after eight years of active duty in the United States Army with his wife and daughter, he found out Harvard had assigned him a room in Lionel.
“The school—they thought I was going to live in the dorms,” Leslie says, laughing. “I informed them that I’m married and I have a child.”
Leslie and his family have opted instead for an apartment in West Cambridge, though he did have his proctor over for dinner freshman year, where they bonded over their young children.
When Alice Huang ’16 came back to Harvard after several leaves for health reasons, she knew that she would not be able to return to living on campus. Even the Dudley Cooperative, known for its home-cooked meals, would not have been able to accommodate the special diet she now adheres to, Huang says.
She currently lives in an apartment in Central Square, with nearby access to supermarkets.
Though Huang and Leslie speak about the undergraduate residential experience with wistfulness, they say that their current situations are better suited to their lives now.
Leslie says that though living off-campus can be “tough,” particularly freshman year when living in Harvard Yard is considered such a big part of the freshman experience, he has different obligations than the average college student.
“That part of my life is gone—when I was of college age, I was in the army, I lived in the barracks,” Leslie says. Now, when he leaves campus for his apartment, he transitions into his role as a “family man.”
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying an immersive experience at Harvard.
“It’s what you make of it. I could easily treat it like a job,” Leslie says. “I spend a great deal of time [at Harvard]. It feels like home.”
Huang is likewise content with her off-campus experience and appreciates benefits like the division between school and home, even if she does battle the occasional spell of doubt and nostalgia.
Huang, who lived for a time in Mather House, sometimes misses House life. But she says periodically eating at dining halls and attending campus events with friends is “enough” for her.
“I just feel like, so much older. I just have different considerations,” she says. “I still feel, ‘Am I missing out, am I not connecting enough with people Harvard people?’ [But] I connect with people who matter to me. It’s what’s important.”