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Language Houses Struggle for Members

By Kathy Lin


In a year when the dormitory selection process was turned on its ear, language houses saw a significant drop in the number of new residents and had problems retaining freshmen who did join.

The houses, French House, German House, Russian House, and Spanish House, are working with the administration and their first-year housemasters to discuss the freshman housing lottery system, which they see as the source of their recruitment problems.

“I really think the administration is fucking us over,” said Sven H. Chilton ’05, German House president. “First they fucked over the frats, and now they’re fucking over the dorms and cultural houses,” he said. The administration is trying to homogenize the MIT student body by not supporting dormitory and fraternity rush, he said. “A huge part of our culture is being able to find your niche,” especially within the unique living communities, Chilton said.

Others have found the administration more helpful. Administrators have offered to help the cultural houses develop strategies to attract more students in the future, said Michael J. Childress ’05, president of New House.

Houses face recruiting crisis

Overall, the four language houses had fewer freshmen interested in joining their houses this year, as well as a harder time retaining the freshmen that did join.

One problem was the lack of extensive personal interaction between current residents of the language houses and prospective freshmen before the freshmen were asked to choose where they would like to live.

Edgar A. Torres ’04, one of Spanish House’s rush chairs, said that a 10-minute phone conversation with a prospective resident is far from the equivalent of the hour or hour-and-a-half conversation that would have been possible under the former rush system.

Rush this year was “very unpleasant” for Russian House, said Pavlo M. Pylyavskyy ’03, who handled Russian House’s rush for the class of 2006. “What happened previously was that more people found out about our existence ... during rush, and they liked us and stayed here,” Pylyavskyy said.

“We managed to get almost as many freshmen as usual [this year], but it was very complicated,” Pylyavskyy said, adding that unlike past years, there was no need for a lottery to get into Russian House this year.

“We got a lot fewer students this year,” Torres said. “In the past, there was so much interest in Spanish House that you had to enter a lottery to get in,” he said, but, like Russian House, no lottery was held this year.

Many leave language houses

Although there were no empty beds when first semester began, six out of about 11 freshmen left German House at the end of first semester “because they didn’t like it” or because of the high level of commitment involved in the cooking system, said Eugenia A. Trusova ’03, German House’s class of 2006 rush chair.

“Six people have left” French House, said Miriam L. Sorell ’04, French House president. Two rooms that had previously been used as triples are now doubles, and one room that had previously been borrowed from German House has now been returned, she said.

“Some people came for other reasons” than because they truly enjoyed the atmosphere of German House, Trusova said.

“There were a lot of factors that affected the housing assignments, ... and we are encouraging students to try moving to different places if they feel more comfortable there,” said Denise A. Vallay, assistant director of undergraduate housing. Some cultural houses have experienced vacancies as a result of moves between dorms, she said.

Houses want to see changes

The cultural houses are in the process of negotiating with the administration for changes in the housing system.

“I think we would like at least to be partially back to what it was before, so that students and freshmen have the chance to meet people and see the place before they have classes,” Pylyavskyy said. The administration “made some minor changes so that people could make some choices at the end of orientation, but I don’t know how much they’re going to change the system,” he added.

“People who weren’t ready for the commitment of cultural houses were passively squatting their rooms,” Sorell said. Living in language houses includes significant cooking duties, among other things, she said.

It is important to emphasize the commitment involved in joining a cultural house in the housing materials that are distributed to incoming freshmen over the summer, Vallay said.

“The best solution is to have no squatting at all” so that cultural house members are given the freedom to identify students who they believe are good matches for their houses, Sorell said, “but that’s not going to be option.”

As a compromise, she is hoping that in the future, “all freshman will be required to log on [to the housing lottery Web site] and say ‘yes I want to keep my room,’” she said. Doing that will “force freshmen [who aren’t particularly suited for a cultural house] to realize that staying where they are isn’t automatic default,” and perhaps increase the chances that they’ll look into other options, Sorell said.

Part of what is needed is a “fail-proof system for interviewing the [prospective residents] and making sure they understand the commitment” involved in joining a cultural house, said New House housemaster Sandra Harris.

The cultural houses were asked to submit lists of students that they wanted before being told who wanted to live in the houses, Sorell said, which proved to be a very ineffective system. “It might be a matter of time, but even if we had half an hour to look at a list of students who wanted to live in our house, that would make a difference,” she said.

However, “it’s hard to change housing without changing rush,” said Shaunna S. Stanton ’05, one of French House’s three rush chairs.

Students, administrators meet

Representatives of the cultural houses, New House, and the administration met Monday night to discuss the housing process for the class of 2007. “The purpose of this meeting [was] to evaluate how residence exploration went for cultural houses and to see if we can improve matters for upcoming years,” Sorell said.

About half of the meeting was spent discussing how rush went for the cultural houses, and the other half was spent discussing strategies for the future, said Caroline A. Niziolek ’05, one of French House’s rush chairs.

Improving the housing situation for cultural houses is “mostly our responsibility,” Childress said, “although the administration is offering us support.”

“We thought that we should take measures to promote the idea of living in a cultural house rather than just as individual houses. We also wanted more time to talk to the prefrosh over the summer to ensure they really do know what the houses are like before they commit,” Niziolek said.

The administration “said they would look into ways of doing this, but didn’t make any promises,” Niziolek said. They agreed to look into making the Web site less confusing, she said.

The administration “said that the cultural houses needed to do a better job marketing to freshmen,” Chilton said, but “they didn’t offer very many suggestions for how to do that.”

One suggestion was that the cultural houses not list the responsibilities involved in being a resident on the first page, Chilton said. “We don’t want to falsely advertise, but ... we should at least say ‘this is what’s cool’ first, then ‘this is what it takes to be a member’ afterwards,” he added.

“Gresh and Vallay both expressed willingness to get us in touch with people who can help us, like a publishing service who can tell us what is good or bad about our publications,” Childress said.

Although he thought the administration was helpful, he agreed that “the cultural house experience is really something that you need to see first-hand,” and that not having rush is a “big detriment” to the cultural houses.

“Frankly, I don’t think much was accomplished at this meeting,” Chilton said. “It basically just went in circles.”

Members of the administration could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

Houses will focus on CPW

“During CPW, we’ll really try to get the name of Spanish House out more, not so much as a rush tactic but so that people know that we exist,” Torres said.

Almost every room or student in Spanish House will be hosting a prospective student during Campus Preview Weekend, Torres said, because in the past about one fourth of those housed in Spanish House during CPW eventually decided to live there.

“Personally, I don’t support CPW as a time to rush students for dorms,” Sorell said. “It should be a time to bring kids to MIT, not to rush them. Unfortunately, we don’t have time during orientation to do rush.”

German House is planning on sending flyers to Cambridge University with Denise Vallay when she travels there later this year, in hopes of enticing some Cambridge-MIT Institute students to live with them next year, Chilton said. He expects the other cultural houses will do the same.

Chocolate City not affected

“During my four years here, we’ve never had a problem” recruiting or retaining freshmen, said Tarik A. Ward ’03, senior co-chair of Chocolate City, adding that he also doesn’t know of any such problems from the years before he has been here.

Only one student has left in the last four years, for reasons not related to the house, said Anthony H. Thomas II ’03, a member of Chocolate City. That student later moved back in.

“I don’t know enough about other cultural houses or dorms to say what’s different,” Ward said, “but we spend a lot of time selecting our freshmen. The way it works here, we try to have a lot of personal interaction, as much as possible given the circumstances.”

Ward said that Chocolate City is “very active during CPW,” during which they “throw a lot of events and are very visible.” Chocolate City also “keep[s] members in the house over the summer to meet any freshmen who happen to be on campus,” and speaks to all prospective residents either on the phone or in person, Ward said.

“We show them a lot of information so that there are few surprises and they understand the commitment,” Ward said.