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Having Diversity and Avoiding Loneliness

Brian Solomon’s post the day before yesterday accepted that Jennifer McGrew was deeply unhappy about her experience at the College, but he wondered, as do I, whether racism was the true source of her bitterness towards Dartmouth. Perhaps a better reason for her discontent was loneliness: she seems to suffer from not having made the bonds of friendship that are a lifelong highlight of many students’ time in Hanover.

Brian went on to ask just how such friendships are made at Dartmouth, given the current social organization of the College:

While Dartmouth can be a welcoming place, it can also be a divisive one. Especially on the most explosive campus issues, students are institutionally set at odds. The fraternity system separates house from house, brothers from non-brothers, women from men. Sororities provide an opposing force with similar traditional boundaries. Athletes align with other athletes. Students divide into majors and interests, rarely to re-emerge for interdisciplinary pursuits. Classroom time rarely builds camaraderie. Mostly it provides more acquaintances to nod to as you pass on the sidewalk…

This is not to say you can’t build your own community within the mythical overarching one. Quite the opposite in fact. Individually, the vast majority of students are open and inclusive, and connections you make can last a lifetime. But outside of your freshman floor and a few mind-melding extracurriculars, people of different backgrounds and different ideas are rarely brought together. If you’re not with your group (or can’t find one at all), campus life can be isolating instead of inviting.
[Emphasis Added]

Dorm life1.jpg‘Twas not always thusly so. Brian is concerned about two aspects of Dartmouth life: the self selection of students into groups of people with similar profiles and interests, and the difficulty in finding a milieu that fosters the creation of deeper, serious friendships.

Longtime readers of this space will know where I am going here. Once again, let’s celebrate the College’s lost system of dorm continuity, the priority system that allowed students the option to return term after term to the same dormitory, and enabled dorms to become supportive social and athletic communities with leaders and identities — without needing the support of expensive community directors. Here’s an excerpt from a column on this subject that I wrote for The D in 2004:

During my four years at the College, I lived in North Fayerweather. Though I spent plenty of time out of Hanover on the Mainz LSA, on an exchange program with UCSD, working and traveling, I was always able to return to Hanover and move back into North Fayer.

The dorm was a fun place: in the fall residents played touch football on the Green in the intramural league; we participated in the Fayerweather Row hockey team in the winter; and in the spring we played soccer and intramural softball. We never won much of anything, but most of the dorm would turn out to play or just watch, and we’d often celebrate after games by calling Moe’s on Allen Street and having them deliver a keg to the dorm.

North Fayer had a reputation as an alternative place (“crunchy” in the modern parlance). It was a way station to countercultural Foley House for some folks, and others went on to frats (the future best place-kicker in NFL history, Nick Lowery, lived across the hall from me for a year before moving to the football fraternity), but most residents stayed true to North Fayer even as we came and went from Hanover under the Dartmouth Plan.

This continuity was possible because of what was called the Dorm Priority system. Each student had a priority dorm, the one you lived in as a freshman. From then on, when you returned to campus, if there was an open room in your dorm, and you had seniority, it was yours for the taking. As a result, a core group of people in each dormitory came to see their dorm as a central interest of their College life. Intramural sports flourished, dorms had identities, and they were social places where you made good friends…

I learned more about the College during my freshman year from the men and women who were North Fayer sophomores, juniors and seniors than from any other source. On a practical level, these folks told me how things really worked at Dartmouth; more importantly, they taught me about the College, its meaning and traditions, as they had in their turn learned about them from upperclassmen when they were freshmen.

In the mid-1980’s, motivated by a misguided sense of leveling the opportunities for student to be in centrally located dorms, the College ended dorm continuity:

Predictably, today’s anonymous dorm life came to pass, with students landing randomly all over campus when they return to Hanover. Intramural sports withered, dorm identities faded, and as one student lamented to me recently, at the end of the term you often don’t know the name of the kids in the room next to yours.

Dartmouth is a lesser place as a result. Even the Student Life Initiative [page 10] recalled wistfully the Dorm Priority system and the erstwhile vibrant life of the College’s dorms. It commented critically on the “stunning lack of continuity” in College housing, where “it is not unusual for sophomores and juniors to live in a different room or even a different residence hall each term.”

A point that the SLI missed, as I did in my column, too, is that one of the great advantages of a residential college is the diversity-fostering quality of its dormitories: they put students together who might never otherwise meet. And if the dorm residents are together long enough in a stable and socially supportive environment, they will learn about the things that they have in common, in addition to those things that separate them. In fact, continuous dorm living is perhaps that best place at Dartmouth to encourage diversity.

And a friendly dorm would have offered Jennifer McGrew the friendships and caring that might have made her happy at Dartmouth.

Addendum: Funny enough, even today’s Trustees realize that the current residential model is broken. In fact, they’ve been talking about reinstating dorm continuity in one of their committees for over three years now. Give ‘em a decade or two more and they might come up with something — unless Phil tells them that he can get the situation sorted out in six months.

Addendum: Coincidentally, today’s D has a story that refers obliquely to some of the points made above:

The Dartmouth Plan prevents sophomores and juniors from experiencing the same continuity in a community that they experience during their freshman year. The residential education office must improve this continuity while encouraging interdisciplinary learning within residential environments, [residential education director, Michael] Wooten said.


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