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Residence at Caltech Marked by Choice

By Karen Robinson

This article is the second in The Tech’s series of articles profiling residence systems at MIT’s peer institutions.

As Undergraduate Association President Matthew L. McGann ’00 told the Class of 2003, MIT’s housing is somewhat unusual in that incoming students choose their housing and live with upperclassmen. Our unusual system is matched by that of the California Institute of Technology, which is based on “a kind of hybrid dorm-frat known as a house,” said Bryan Eastin, Caltech ’01.

There are seven on-campus houses: Blacker, Dabney, Fleming, Lloyd, Page, Ricketts, and Ruddock. Each “comprises a kind of extended family,” Eastin said. Members of a house eat together every evening, and most socializing also takes place within a house.

Like MIT dorms and living groups, houses have distinct personalities. Caltech junior Celeste Yang, said the “moles,” or tunnel hackers, often live in her house, Blacker. Page and Fleming residents, she said, are often more athletic.

Freshmen choose houses

During the first week of classes, freshmen live in temporary housing and “do rotations” -- eat lunch and dinner at a different house every day. At the end of the week they designate four houses in which they would like to live. Every student is placed in one of his four choice houses, said Biff Yamazaki, in the Caltech Housing Office. “Most people get into either their first or second choice,” Eastin said.

Students move after having been at Caltech for two weeks, during their first term. According to Eastin first term is already “a swirl of colors, sounds, hopes, and hormones. The extra bit of craziness added by moving after two weeks is hardy noticeable.”

Houses also select freshmen

House members meet after dining with the freshmen during rotations, and discuss them. At the end of rotations houses, too, rank the freshmen they thought would fit well at that house. “I have a feeling that the upperclassmen know where the freshmen should go better than the frosh know themselves,” Eastin said. “In every case I know of a frosh being disappointed by which house picked them, that frosh subsequently decided that they loved their house and that it was the best of the seven. On the other hand, I know of a few cases in which a really gung ho frosh got into their first choice only to be disappointed later that their house was not everything they imagined.”

And does he enjoy rotations, from the house member’s prospective? “It’s fun for two to four days, depending on how excited you are,” Eastin said.

Other housing options

In addition to the houses, Caltech offers several other housing options. Caltech owns off campus apartments, and most houses have affiliated “off-campus alleys,” small houses or sets of apartments which are owned by Caltech and designated for house members.

House membership is unaffected when students choose to live in other housing. “Once a new frosh becomes a member of a house that individual remains a member until death or until extraordinary measures are taken,” Eastin said.

Off-campus housing is generally not more than a few blocks from campus, if that, Chiarchio said.

There are also Avery House and Marks House, which are not houses in that they are not based on membership, but do provide an alternate place for students to live.

According to the Avery web page, “undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty are blended together in a residential community which enables them to interact with one another informally.”

Only freshmen are guaranteed on-campus housing in one of the seven houses. All Caltech students are guaranteed institute housing of some form, however Yamazaki said. All students are required to live in a house during the first two (of three) terms of their freshman year, and are guaranteed on-campus housing for all three freshman terms.

Rooming within each house -- including who lives in the house and who lives in off-campus alleys -- is decided by the house government.

Yamazaki said that roughly 60 percent of students live in on-campus houses any given year, and about 25 percent live in Caltech-owned off-campus housing.

Pets permitted

Cats are allowed in all Caltech houses, but not in Avery or Marks. No more than 10 percent of house members may have cats, however, and cats must be approved by the house government before moving in. In addition, the Housing Office requires that they be “properly spayed and neutered,” Yamazaki said.