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Student Compares Cambridge Campus Life With MIT

After Spending a Year at Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College, Lang Describes Cambridge Rooms

By Kevin R. Lang


“What exactly is a fraternity?” I was amazed how many students in Cambridge asked me this question. Hadn’t they ever seen “Animal House?” Even if MIT’s frats are a far cry from the Deltas, or even from Dartmouth, at least people who have seen “Animal House” have some idea what a frat is. It isn’t the easiest concept to explain from scratch.

When I came home for Christmas, I had a similar problem explaining to friends and family where I lived in Cambridge. My room was in Corpus Christi College’s New Court, which actually predates MIT’s founding by a good fifty years. (Corpus’ Old Court dates from 1352.) “Do you live in a dorm?” Well, not exactly. “Oh, so they have frats there?” Uh, no, not really.

New Court is exactly that: a four-walled, big-gate, neo-Gothic, medieval-style courtyard, complete with the college library, dining hall, chapel, bar, recreation room or JCR (no one knows why it’s called the Junior Combination Room), computer room, and porter’s lodge. In fact, Corpus has a live webcam view of New Court, at .

My old room is on the second floor, immediately to the left the arched entryway on the far side of the court. Pretty sweet view, if I don’t say so myself.

The irony of a big room

To paraphrase the popular song from a few years back, it’s like living in the room of your dreams, while all your stuff is back in the States. I was absolutely stunned when I first opened the door: no way could this room possibly be a single. Of course “roommate” isn’t part of the Cambridge vocabulary, so there are some pretty sizable singles. My room was roughly 15 feet by 18 feet with 12 foot ceilings, four chairs, desk, and a sink in the corner. Back at MIT, my MacGregor single was filled top to bottom with my stuff: computer, home theater system, fridge, books, tools, food, you name it. I found myself in a great, big room with no computer, no fridge, no books, no tools, no food, half my clothes, and a discman with computer speakers.

I made myself at home quickly enough, though, and bought some posters to interrupt the vast expanse of walls. Still, it never really felt right without all the things I’d been surrounded by for the past two years, and I found myself spending very little time in my room. Too big, too empty.

The location, however, was unbeatable. The second floor was a big improvement from my fourth floor MacGregor lowrise room. I was within 100 feet of the college bar, college library, dining hall, computer room, mail room, and just about everything else in town, since Corpus is right in the middle of Cambridge. Of course, Corpus is a tiny little college, so no one is too far from anything.

Still, everything is really, really old. If you think EC or Random is bad, try living in a building with Victorian-era plumbing. In other words, don’t drink the water, and get used to taking an actual bath in an actual bathtub every day. Kitchen facilities in the older parts of college often consist of a mini fridge and a single “hob,” a combination toaster oven and hotplate. Windows are drafty, heat is inconsistent, floors are creaky -- in other words, more than enough of that old world charm. Most of the time, though, I was having too much fun outside of my room to even notice.

Not exactly rush

Room selection is an interesting process in Cambridge. I can’t speak for every college, but at least in Corpus, the smallest room in college is still bigger than a MacGregor single. The biggest room? Well, some of the Old Court rooms have a small bedroom, maybe 8 feet by 10 feet, with a separate “sitting room” as big as 18 feet by 18 feet. No wonder people fight tooth and nail over room selection.

Lucky for me I didn’t have to worry about finding a room for next year, at least not in Corpus. But different colleges have some very, very different rooming policies. Most incoming freshman are simply assigned to a room within the college, depending on what’s available. After that, there is usually some combination of seniority and random lottery to assign rooms for the second and third years. Most people don’t really care where they live so much as who they live with.

Corpus, and a few other colleges, do it a bit differently. When Corpus’ new Senior Tutor (a sort of all-encompassing dean) took over in January 2000, he implemented an academic room ballot. The better your grades, the better your room.

Imagine this at MIT: got a 5.0? Instant river view single of your choice. Got a few B’s and C’s last semester? Tough luck - you’re in a triple. Needless to say, students in Corpus flipped out. They unanimously supported a vote of no confidence in the Senior Tutor, they protested, they passed out pamphlets, they donned t-shirts, and in the end - not much changed. Not too different from MIT and freshmen on campus, is it? The final system involves a random ballot for most rooms, with the best rooms set aside as “prizes” for the top students. Personally, I would feel strange taking a “prize” room while my friends were randomly scattered around the college.

In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter where your room is in college, at least not in Corpus. Just being part of the college is what matters most.

This is the third in a series of Reporter’s Notebooks on the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI).