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With More Students Off Campus, House Life Is Down, But Not Out

By Rachel L. Reynolds
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

This year’s return to campus, for most of us, couldn’t have been more highly anticipated. But amidst a flurry of move-in excitement, a curious number of us were equally eager to arrive off-campus. This year, 265 students decided against living in Harvard housing — double the amount that resides off-campus during a typical year, but ultimately only raising the total student population living off-campus to a still slight 4 percent.

This small increase should not catch us by surprise. We have had to discard and reimage nearly every staple of campus life this past year and a half. Each student deserves the chance to decide how to rebuild their individual life here at Harvard as we all figure out how to do the same as a community.

Ultimately, we just want students to feel comfortable in their living space. For some, that peace might be found in an off-campus apartment, a mode of living this pandemic year might have revealed they’re suited to. Good for them. Even still, we hope, for most of us, that happy living arrangements can be found in one of Harvard’s 12 trademark upperclassmen Houses.

Four percent of undergraduates living off-campus shouldn’t be taken as a cue to start eulogizing House life. But Harvard’s uniquely residential setup is a wonderful quirk of our college. That well-over 90 percent of undergraduates have chosen, for decades, to reside on campus all four years is special, and, in many ways, is the fabric of our shared college experience.

This past year and a half has been unwieldy, confusing, and weird. Much of “normal” has fallen to the wayside. But we sincerely hope that this slight uptick in those opting out of House life doesn’t mark the beginning of a trend as we ease into the era of post-pandemic House life.

Of course, House life this year cannot be as straightforward as it was before. The Classes of 2023 and 2024 are just starting to familiarize themselves with this ecosystem and the Class of 2022 has leapfrogged from their Houses youngest to oldest, all the old familiar faces having graduated. Residents of all years are still finding their way.

Covid aside, students have historically maintained various connections to their Houses. Some are on a first-name basis with their deans. Many run in and out of House events only to grab two (maybe 10) free cookies. But when that programming cannot happen due to social distancing guidelines – or when planners are confused on how to hold fun events within Harvard’s guidelines – fewer students will likely end up building strong relationships with their three-year homes. And that’s a shame.

House life, at its best, is another shot at making Harvard feel like home. It can connect disparate students who might not have become friends if not for dining hall meet-cutes. That sophomores and juniors have a diminished shot at reaping these benefits because of our strained times is depressing.

Very real constraints have been imposed on House life: from Harvard’s 10-person limit on dorm room gatherings, to new restrictions on our capacity to loiter, even masked, in indoor spaces with our new House-mates. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to instantly recapitulate what House life was in years past. But these restrictions don’t mean House life can’t be made appealing.

To jumpstart House spirit, tutors and deans should do more than in years past to foster community within entryways, dorms, and the House as a whole. Outdoor steins and study breaks seem like a good start. They should reach out to those who seem disconnected, and exert particular energy to learn the names of students they don’t already know.

Seniors have a role to play here, too. There is no one better — in fact, no one else — to pass on House traditions and teach us just how great House life can be. We should take care to preserve those customs for the future, even as the world around us continues to put them on hold.

Even if some friends choose to live off-campus, quintessential House life — those charming moments of bonding over Harvard’s grueling lack of AC, or pondering who exactly Red is, and whether this really is his best catch — will always hold a special place in our hearts, and likely continue to define the Harvard experience. As we work to rebuild this community, we wish its deserters well.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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