Upperclassmen Life at Harvard

By: Joseph Luongo

Campus Sherpa Blog Contributor, Harvard University

In my previous blog, I wrote about freshman life at Harvard. I would like to continue that storyline with talking about upperclassmen life. As previously mentioned, all freshmen are required to live in Harvard Yard with randomly assigned roommates. The next three years are very different. Although students are not required to live on campus for the next three years, 98% choose to do so. Finding out your living arrangement after freshman year is actually a very long and exciting process at Harvard. Much like other facets of Harvard, housing is much like Harry Potter. Students are randomly sorted into one of the twelve upperclassmen houses located throughout the University (minus the sorting hat).

The first step to this process is setting up a “blocking group”. This is a group of one to eight students of their choosing who will all be guaranteed to be placed in the same house with each other. This can include anyone within your graduating year of any gender; Harvard has gender neutral housing, even within actual rooms. Most of the time, students choose to live with people in their blocking group, but depending on which house you are sorted into, there are different procedures for choosing who you actually live with and what type of room etc. Students are allowed to live with anyone else within their house. Once a student’s blocking group is figured out, they come up with a name for their blocking group. This is usually a variation of the word “block” such as “Blockbuster”, “Dwayne ‘The Block’ Johnson”, and my blocking group’s name, “It’s Five O’Block Somewhere”. The blocking group then selects one of the members’ rooms’ to be in for the morning of Housing Day. Blocking groups can also choose a “linking group” which is another blocking group that students desire to live close by. This linking group would be in the same neighborhood of three houses as them; there are four neighborhoods.

Housing Day is the day when freshmen are sorted and assigned into their house for the next three years at Harvard. It is always the Thursday before spring break. Blocking groups will get up very early (7 AM) and go to the room they selected for their blocking group. From there, students wait. Around 8 AM all the upperclassmen will storm Harvard Yard, which is where most of the freshman are waiting in their rooms with their blocking group, all dressed in their respective house colors, gear, shields, with costumes and mascots, screaming and yelling, all very excited to welcome the freshman into their house. The school band, the President, the Deans, and many professors are there to help control the chaos and take part in the festivities. Shortly after the upperclassmen arrive, they are given letters with the names and locations of all the freshman sorted into their house.

I remember as a freshman, my blocking group started getting anxious and stressed out the night before Housing Day, only increasing further in the morning awaiting the arrival of the upperclassmen with our housing assignment. Students could be notified right at 8 AM or up to 9 AM. Students can hear the groups of upperclassmen from the different houses chanting their house name and running throughout the Yard, other dorms, and the hallways awaiting a knock on their door. Eventually there will be a knock on the door, followed by complete silence, until someone opens it. Immediately, twenty to thirty upperclassmen flood a tiny freshman dorm room chanting their house name, jumping up and down, and giving out house t-shirts, bags, hats, etc. From that point on, students are sorted into a house and can relax finally. The rest of the day is followed by many different events at each of the houses for their new members.

The reason why my blocking group and many other blocking groups were anxious about Housing Day is because some houses are deemed better than others and usually students have a favorite that they really want to be sorted into. The twelve houses organized into the neighborhoods are: Kirkland, Eliot, Winthrop / Adams, Quincy, Lowell / Dunster, Mather, Leverett / Cabot, Currier, Pforzheimer. The first three neighborhoods are deemed “River Houses” as they are located right off of the main campus and Harvard Square along the Charles River. The last neighborhood is deemed the “Quad” as these houses are located in the Radcliffe Quadrangle, Radcliffe College’s former campus and housing before merging with Harvard. Most students do not want to get “quad-ed” since this neighborhood is a long walk and very separated from the rest of the campus. Some may want to get Adams since their dining hall is very close to most classes. Some may want Dunster since it is the newest renovated house. Everyone has their own preferences and houses they desire. Each house, like the freshman dorms, has their own culture, identity, shields, symbols, mascots, traditions, events, etc, only on a much larger scale. All houses have their own dining hall (students can use any of them), library, gym, common rooms, study spaces, and special spaces unique to houses such as a bell tower, rock climbing wall, theater, printing press, pottery studio, etc.

There are some other things to note. For the very small number of students (2%), that choose to live off campus, have an unofficial thirteenth house, Dudley, as their home on campus. Harvard usually tries to renovate one house per year which displaces hundreds of students. These students live in swing housing through Harvard Square such as Prescott Street apartments and the old Harvard Inn. There is also over flow housing for some houses that cannot fit all students within the actual “house” building, which are the DeWolfe Street apartments. Students can also request to switch out of their house for various reasons, which is usually pretty difficult, but can be done in pairs. Most students are happy in their assigned dorms and do not request to change. Each house at Harvard has an established connection with a freshman dorm and also a “sister” college (same as house) at Yale such as Adams House with Weld Hall, has a relationship with Saybrook College at Yale. During the annual playing of “The Game”, the Harvard – Yale football rivalry, each school will accommodate the visiting team with housing for the weekend. This relationship between Harvard and Yale is similar to the relationship that Oxford and Cambridge have. Unofficial relationships exist between the American and British schools in terms of houses/colleges as well.

Like the freshman dorms, there is a structure of administrators in charge of the house. There are “tutors”, the “brothers” and “sisters” of the house, which are the same as proctors, RAs, and DAs. They are usually graduate students and specialize in different fields such as pre- med, law, business, etc. Students are also assigned with an academic advisor and concentration (major) advisor to fit their academic needs more personally. The tutors live in entryways of anywhere from fifteen to thirty students organized by entrances or floors and will often host study breaks and be there for advice and help. There is one Resident Dean per house who helps students deal with any academic or personal needs or problems. There are two Faculty Deans, formerly House Masters, usually a married couple of professors, that live in a literal house either engrained into the actual “house” building or within/near the “house” buildings. They are the “parents” of the house and are the leaders and in charge of everything that happens in the house.

I would be remiss to talk about Housing Day without mentioning the “River Run”. The River Run is a tradition that freshman do the night before Housing Day not affiliated and often fought by Harvard. The tradition is that every member of the blocking group must take a shot in each of the nine “river” houses the night before Housing Day in order to please the “river gods” so they will be sorted into the river house, and therefore, not the Quad. Of course, there is no correlation between house selection and the River Run, but a large number of students attempt to do it in spite of Harvard’s increased police presence and obstacles in order to repress the event.

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