Posted in: Campus

The Untold Stories of Freshman Dorming

By | September 15, 2016


*Some names of students have been changed to protect their identities

“I used to hide in Widener. You?”

*Henry Yi ’19 sat across from me describing his first semester on campus at Harvard. Unlike most students who periodically hide away in Widener Library to study, his intentions were more than mere preparation for midterms and finals. Henry went there to escape, to find a safe haven from his damaging, unsolvable rooming situation. Although uncommon, this circumstance is one that I have unfortunately heard echoed by others in the Class of 2019. Whether in the library, a close friend’s room, or the dining hall, stories of my classmates avoiding their dorm to elude negative, strained roommate or proctor relationships have occasionally surfaced. This shocking reality initially seems strange: after all, if students are not enjoying their roommate or housing experiences, then why don’t they attempt to resolve their conflicts or switch rooms? It turns out that navigating these challenging situations at Harvard can be much more difficult than it might initially sound.

Although individually resolving roommate disputes can be a valuable learning experience for freshmen, some are new to the dorm environment and will reach out to proctors for guidance on how to navigate their new rooming situations. However, proctors and resident deans can sometimes fail to provide adequate support and guidance, leaving students feeling trapped in their challenging environment. Furthermore, some students heavily delay reaching out for any administrative help in serious and difficult situations because they are used to resolving their challenges on their own and are unsure of when to ask for help. These conflicts can be proactively addressed through consistent student training on conflict resolution during freshmen orientation. Additionally, this periodic lack of administrative support can be solved through a proctor and resident dean system that promotes open lines of communication before and throughout the conflict resolution process, as well as requires proctors and resident deans to follow-up with students whose concerns have not been fully resolved to ensure a successful transition from a difficult housing situation.

Getting the Assignment

Dr. Jasmine Waddell, one of four resident deans of freshmen at Harvard, provides insight into the broad support system for ideal freshman housing. She explained to the HPR that resident deans piece together freshmen rooms using the results of a comprehensive housing survey, especially focusing on students’ “backgrounds, medical needs, and desires.” Next, they create entryways, pairing groups of 20-40 students to a proctor who “is responsible for the well-being of the students.” When freshmen enter Harvard, proctors, peer advising fellows, and the general Harvard community provide students with a wealth of support through meetings, study breaks, outings, and more. These efforts in creating welcoming housing communities have been largely successful, evidenced by the fact that “many freshmen choose to block (live in the same upperclassmen house) with their roommates or entryway-mates,” said Dean Waddell.

An Imperfect System

Although this majority is reassuring, Waddell acknowledges that not all students will experience this “wildly happy” housing experience, both due to conflicts in rooming situations or with administrators. While Harvard students have access to a wealth of resources, freshmen who face uncomfortable rooming situations can feel “alone, restricted, paranoid, hated unconditionally, and not worthy enough,” phrases Henry used when reflecting on his own housing experience. “[My roommate] dismissed my family story and rejected my freedom of expression,” said Henry, describing how his roommate refused to allow him to display a Jewish prayer scroll and the flags of nations where his parents were accepted as refugees.

While Henry’s situation is unique, he is certainly not alone in experiencing exhausting housing conflict. *Antonio Hernandez relayed to the HPR how his roommate’s mom would regularly come into his room unannounced and insult him, claiming he was only accepted to Harvard because of affirmative action. He recalled “breaking down into tears” because of how uncomfortable he felt in his own room. Another student, *Christine Wells, revealed how public embarrassment from her proctor induced heavy anxiety, which eventually triggered an “anxiety attack on [her] proctor’s couch.” I understand how trapped students in these situations can feel, as my freshman rooming experience was not at all comfortable. My room became a source of constant stress for the entire school year. Although I worked hard to compromise and find solutions that could bridge the differences between my roommate and me, a resolution could never be reached. Now I know that I was not alone in this feeling.

Reaching Out for Administrative Help

From my interviews, I have realized that many Harvard students hesitate to reach out for administrative help regarding their negative rooming or proctor situations, preferring to attempt to resolve even the worst of situations through their own compromise. As Ziyun Deng, a proctor in the freshman dorm Weld, told the HPR, no matter how horrible a situation is, Harvard students usually “attempt to completely work things out by themselves rather than seek help.” Henry confirmed this idea when he explained why he did not request a rooming change: “I thought I could work [our disagreements] out.” In fact, all of the students with housing conflict that I interviewed delayed reaching out for administrative help until they had exhausted all possible methods of resolving the issue within their room. However, this same commendable trait can burden students into trading their mental and physical well-being in an attempt to work out differences with roommates, whose lifestyles can sometimes be just too different to be compatible.

Periodic Gaps in Administrative Support

Unfortunately, it’s clear that even if students finally reveal these issues to their proctors and resident deans, not all students will find adequate support when faced with housing challenges. As the year progressed for Antonio, he turned to the administration for help with establishing guidelines for his roommate’s omnipresent and insulting mother. However, he “quickly found that … [nothing] was going to be done to resolve [his situation].” His proctor and resident dean allowed the situation to continue, and Antonio endured this hostile environment where his roommate’s mother was constantly allowed to belittle him inside his own room for the entire year. I experienced a similar situation when I received limited support from my administrators after requesting help dealing with my roommate situation. After a short period of unproductive mediation, they cut the lines of communication without helping me to resolve any concerns. Unable to find assistance within the housing administration, I eventually had to turn to others outside of the traditional housing support system for guidance.

Henry revealed that even though most people, including his proctor, found his roommate to be “stubborn and inconsiderate,” everyone still expected him to somehow “be the one to find middle ground.” This middle ground became an unhealthy environment where Henry continuously accepted and obeyed all of his roommates’ commands without regard for his own happiness. Likewise, Christine could not find a method to repair her relationship with her proctor or change proctors, and, thus felt trapped since she knew of no other administrator to contact for help or guidance in difficult situations. In these cases, the administration failed to provide reliable support for their students in mediating conflict and was unable to advise students of an alternative way to resolve their situations.

The Necessity of Meaningful Guidance

In a system in which all freshmen must live on campus, it is expected that Harvard have an outstanding system for advising students on both proactively and retroactively addressing housing conflict, as residential life becomes inextricably linked with academics. Although many proctors attempt to ensure that each student feels supported and can personally grow through successful resolution of housing conflict, some students cannot find the support they need and are forgotten even after they reach out for help. This can leave students with unacceptable or scarring rooming experiences and prevent them from learning how to traverse these often difficult situations.

While it is immensely important for students to learn how to handle these issues on their own, students who reach out for help might not yet understand how to resolve these conflicts. This is especially evident since Harvard students, as Deng pointed out, don’t reach out for help on these issues unless they have exhausted all methods of resolution within their rooms. In an environment where many students are facing these challenges for the first time, the significance of excellent advice on how to peacefully resolve these conflicts cannot be underestimated.

In addition, for a school whose mission is to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society” through a “transformative” experience, the realm of material to be taught goes beyond the academic. In order for students to become citizen-leaders, they must learn how to build bridges among widely different perspectives. Harvard’s freshman housing, which connects a wide variety of people, ideas, and opinions from all around the world, is a perfect place to teach these skills. It is vital that freshmen are introduced to methods on how to unite these seemingly irreconcilable differences and address significant conflicts when they may arise.

The Silver Lining

However, these unfortunate cases do not represent the majority of freshman experiences at Harvard. There are a wealth of passionate administrators and peers who support Harvard students tremendously in their mental and academic transition to college. For example, Deng highlighted the importance of compassionate and involved proctors in the freshman housing community. Deng not only revealed the extent to which many proctors care about their students, but also their defined role as a “mentor and an advisor” in the entryway. She emphasized the importance of creating an environment where freshmen know the entryway is “not for evaluation” and is instead where “everyone can … ask anything.” It’s clear from my interviews that the intention to create a home for an entryway is echoed from many Harvard proctors. Through these conversations, it’s evident there is no lack of supportive advisors at Harvard.

Furthermore, it is rare to find an institution that cares so deeply for the growth of its students as much as Harvard. It is certainly not the responsibility of every institution of higher education to focus on cultivating students beyond the academic realm. Harvard’s requirement for all freshmen to live on campus is a testament to its dedication to promoting the development of its students outside of academics. In addition, the well-staffed proctor and resident dean support system reveals a fundamental dedication to providing individualized support for each freshman at Harvard.

However, since it is apparent that some students cannot find the guidance and support they need within the current freshman housing system, there are still improvements to be made within this support network. Students should not be coddled, but properly equipped with the guidance to successfully solve their housing concerns on their own. With the foundation of these passionate administrators, positive change is definitely a viable option. Now is the time to make this system even better to ensure each student has a chance to grow from their freshman housing experience.

It’s Time for Change

A few precise steps from Harvard’s administration would likely make Harvard’s housing support system exceptional and strengthen the freshmen housing system from both administrative and student perspectives.

First and foremost, freshmen orientation should include methods of resolving rooming conflict through standardized conflict resolution activities. For example, Deng has her entryway act out and discuss solutions to various roommate disagreement scenarios. This helps to grow students’ understanding of conflict resolution methods from the beginning of the year.

Furthermore, proctors should continue to encourage freshmen to reach out for advice. If a student reaches out for guidance, proctors should keep open lines of communication until a fair solution has been reached. It is not logical to force students who request help and feel bullied or unsafe to try and resolve a conflict solely on their own. If roommates are truly incompatible, proctors and resident deans should ensure that discontinuing a destructive roommate relationship will not administratively adversely affect a student who is not at fault. This step will prevent students from feeling trapped in a dreadful rooming environment and will bring more rooming conflicts to a successful conclusion for the student and administration. This will additionally help students realize that it is acceptable to leave abusive and draining housing situations, both in college and beyond.

Finally, students should have the opportunity to provide anonymous proctor feedback throughout the year. This will promote a continuous improvement of proctor-entryway relationships and housing communities.

It is vital that our community take the time to become more receptive and fully address negative housing experiences. Although this system of proctors and resident deans is already strong, it is clear that some students’ issues have too often slipped through the cracks of the advising system. When this happens, opportunities for growth turn into destructive living conditions of deep-seated tension, misunderstandings, and anxiety. With a further developed proctor and student training system and a more transparent, constructive proctor-student relationship, more freshmen can benefit from Harvard’s housing support system and learn how to successfully transition from difficult housing situations. I write this article with a mind towards the Class of 2020 and anyone who is entering a roommate relationship: if there are problems, speak up early and never be afraid to reach out for help. Let’s transform Harvard’s freshman housing into a consistent system where all freshmen can achieve an enriching housing experience.


Image: Hollis Hall. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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