WHERE WILL I LIVE? WHAT IF MY ROOMMATE SNORES? WHAT IF S/HE IS A SLOB/NEAT-FREAK? HOW WILL I GET ALONG? WILL I MAKE FRIENDS? CO-ED BATHROOMS?!? SERIOUSLY? When you think about it, first-year fears are pretty reasonable. Wherever you live now and whatever your home situation is, it’s home. If your brother snores, you can yell at him. If you’ve got the flu, your mom will make you chicken soup.
Yeah, you’re ready to go, take the next step. But live in a dormitory with hundreds of complete strangers, including one who’ll occupy half of the space you’re assigned to? How is that going to work out?
Surprisingly, at Vassar it seems to work out pretty well. Even though living off campus is an option for third and fourth year students, 98% of Vassar students choose to live on campus for all four years. And even though you can switch to a different residence hall, almost all students choose to stay in the house they were randomly assigned to as first years.
The reason the housing system works so well is that it has been very well thought out over the years. First of all, we call them “houses” rather than “dorms” because we envision a place where students feel at home. Just like home, there are “parental units” in the house—house fellows, faculty families who live there and are very much a part of house life. Unlike your own parents, though, they’re not there to monitor your homework or enforce curfew or anything like that. “Randy Cornelius and Kathy Anderson, the house fellows in Davison, are always enthusiastic,” says Louise Conner ’11, Davison House president. “They put on events like bagel brunches and conversation dinners that bring everyone together and get the house talking about all sorts of issues and topics. Kathy always makes the most delicious food, and Randy has even played with his band at some of the events in Davison.”
There are also “older siblings” in every house—second, third, and even some fourth year students (although many of them opt for senior housing)—because we don’t think it’s a good idea to segregate by class year. We also don’t group people by majors or interests—there are no houses for athletes or for science majors or for any particular group. “There’s such a broad range of people here,” says Conner. “No matter what your background, your interests, there’s always someone to talk to, something to get involved with, and you quickly become part of a community.”
Among the older siblings are student fellows, whose job is to help first year students get acclimated, and house officers—president, vice president, and so on—whose job is to represent the house in the student government. Unlike the RAs you’ll typically find at colleges and universities, these older siblings have no disciplinary role. They’re leaders, mentors, and friends. “When I first got here, it was a relief to have that kind of support system in place,” says Daryl Duran ’12, Jewett House president. “There was no anxiety about having to ask for help.”
There are homey gathering spaces in every house—a parlor with a Steinway grand and a fireplace (non-working, sorry…but it looks pretty). Comfortable community rooms, some with pool tables or ping pong, all with big screen TVs. Kitchens and laundry rooms. Study rooms and computer rooms. Because Jewett is one of the largest houses, there’s a common room on each floor. “You’ll always find someone in there,” says Duran, “doing homework, helping each other out, or when we’re done with our work, having a good time together. The house fosters a strong sense of community. Everyone gets to know each other.”
And yes, there are co-ed bathrooms in all of the nine houses except Strong. “Yeah, they're weird at first, but within about three days you're over it,” says Eli Schutze ’12, Josselyn House president.
There are traditions and stories associated with each house. Main, for example, claims that the ghost of Matthew Vassar walks the fifth floor. Josselyn, the sixth house to be built, back in 1912, was the first to have showers, and still claims to have the best bathrooms. Jewett’s most famous resident, Edna St. Vincent Millay, class of 1917, almost didn’t graduate because she got caught sneaking out after hours the week before commencement.
A fair number of students choose to stay in the residence halls for their last year, but most move into senior housing, one of the three on-campus apartment complexes. These are partially furnished apartments where the housemates take care of their own cooking and cleaning. They don’t have to worry about things like utility bills, so it’s a gentle transition to the “real world.”
But even when they move to senior housing and even, in fact, after they graduate, they still tend to identify with their houses. It’s not the building that matters so much, but what’s happened there—the friendships they’ve made, the person they’ve become. “I’ve been in Joss since my first year,” says Schutze. “It’s great because I know everybody’s name. I walk down the hallway and it’s like, ‘Honey, I’m home,’ but bigger.”