After spending a few months here, I’ve grown to love Kings Court English College House, my college house. I enjoy a larger dorm room than my peers at Hill College House and it never gets too loud in the hallways, which can’t always be said for the Quad. My podmates are amazing, and I am eager to share a suite with them next year. But while I highly recommend Kings Court English College House to incoming first years, I can’t help wondering: what if I had gone somewhere else?
If you asked me last year, I would have said that Penn’s College House system was better than Yale’s or Harvard’s, where students are sorted into random college houses in their first and sophomore years, respectively. Now, I’m not so sure.
Though my friends and I have varied academic interests, we all identify as introverted. I’ve met a lot of people here, but I am only good friends with a handful of them. Though this can all be attributed to the ongoing pandemic, I also wonder if we’re playing into the Kings Court English College House stereotype of shy students that form tight-knit friend groups. Would I have grown more outgoing this term if I had gone to the Quad instead, where students threw parties this term? Or would I have been socially isolated if I had gone to the high rises, with a lower first-year population and apartment-style housing?
The inconsistency in Penn’s college housing system, combined with the freedom Penn students have to choose their housing, has led to college houses that are unrepresentative of the Penn student body and frequently stereotyped. There would be no stereotypes if college houses were randomized, because students would have no say in choosing their house. Each college house could become a microcosm of the greater Penn community, encouraging discussions across majors, socioeconomic backgrounds, personality types, and cultures. But is it the responsibility of our college houses to play this role, or to honor student living preferences? It’s an open question.
There is much to be gained from randomized college housing. Consider college house spirit. On Housing Day, the day that first years at Harvard receive their assignments, upperclassmen usually celebrate by waving flags, screaming house chants, and visiting dorms dressed in house-themed costumes. Yale colleges participate in the Tyng Cup, where students compete against each other in intramural sports. It’s unexpected that such strong, tight-knit communities can grow from a completely arbitrary selection process, but that’s exactly what happens. At Penn, I’ve never seen anyone throw a party upon getting into any of our College Houses (yes, even New College House West).
You also learn to be more accepting and respectful when living with people from different walks of life. Befriending people that have the same hobbies, worldview, or academic majors is important, but just as important is engaging with people that expand your views and interests. Random college housing accomplishes just that, diminishing stereotypes and sparking new friendships.
That said, I don’t think that Penn’s infrastructure is built for a completely randomized college housing system. At Harvard and Yale, all college houses have roughly the same number of undergraduates, and each has its own dining hall and activity rooms. At Penn, not every house is created equal. Harnwell College House has several times as many students as Hill. Stouffer College House students walk five minutes to the 1920 Commons, whereas Kings Court English College House students enjoy an in-house dining hall. Du Bois College House and Penn’s various Program Communities are examples of housing geared towards students with certain backgrounds and interests, and they are central to making students feel welcome at Penn. Thus, they should not be randomized without careful consideration.
Even so, I want the option to live somewhere without falling into a stereotype. This year, the closest anyone can get to achieving that is moving into New College House West, since no one’s lived there yet. But soon enough, NCHW will be populated with its own unique clique of students, fragmenting Penn’s community further.
A long-term solution to this problem could be allowing Penn students to opt out of ranking rooms altogether, sorting a student or group of students into random houses before the rest of selection begins. If enough students were randomly assigned, each college house would grow more diverse as a result. Similarly, Penn could conduct randomized college housing for first years only, who normally occupy a smaller subset of the houses anyway, and would benefit the most from meeting a wide variety of Penn personalities.
Penn students deserve to meet peers that come from all kinds of backgrounds, and Penn’s college housing has the opportunity to create this environment. Going forward, Penn should seize it.
CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering first-year student studying Systems Engineering & Environmental Science from New York City. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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