By Jen Eason
What happens when the first House isn’t “the one”?
By JEN EASON
“I’ve only gotten into one thing at Harvard,” says a current quadling, referring to the rejection letter the College sent them on February 18, 2020 for their interhouse transfer application. It’s a pretty opaque process. The Independent reached out to Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Director of Media Relations, Rachel Dane, who redirected us to the interhouse transfer website and confirmed that it contains the only information the College will publicly release on the topic. According to the site, you have to live in your assigned house for two full terms, unless you are an intercollegiate transfer, in which case you only have to wait for one term. Decisions are released a week after the deadline; if you are approved for transfer, you are required to make the move. There are three application rounds: one for transferring in the spring, and two for the fall. Those who apply as pairs will be accepted or rejected together.
That is all you can gather from the outside. When the Independent asked about the data for interhouse transfers, such as which houses send in the most applications, or the most commonly listed reason for transferring, Dane told us, “This isn’t information the college publicly releases.” We were given no reason for the lack of data transparency. It remains unknown whether the College is using this data to address any troubling trends they see that might indicate a serious issue in any of the Houses.
The Independent reached out to all twelve undergraduate House Administrators and was able to secure an in-person interview with Kirkland House Administrator Kate Drizos Cavell. She shed a little more light on the process. For the first round, you can apply in the fall semester and transfer over break. In this case, House Administrators use their judgement, “but are not judging.” They are trying to match applicants with the absences that they have from students who aren’t coming back next semester, either from canceling housing or taking a leave of absence to take care of a relative or pursue an internship. Since the Administrator knows the specific rooms that need to be filled, they are looking to match people to the right spaces. That could be based on things like gender identity or the preferences of any remaining roommates. If you apply in May, House Administrators follow a similar process. Housing Administrators meet to see what rooms have opened up and where people would best fit. As Cavell said, “The goal of the Housing Administrators is to get people where they want to be.” In this case, it could be advantageous to meet with the Housing Administrator since they are trying to match people to situations.
In both of those cases, you have to take whatever housing you can get based on openings. However, if you apply in February, then you can participate in the normal upperclassmen rooming process of the House you get into. The process is slightly different, though, as matching is run not by Housing Administrators, but by the College’s algorithm, which, Cavell admits, she doesn’t know how it works. When you apply, there is a drop-down list from which you have to choose a reason for your transfer, such as being closer to academic or athletic facilities. This data is reported as being collected purely for statistical reasons, though, and should not actually affect your chances of transferring. You then rank the houses you want to get into. You can rank from one to eleven houses, but they should be ones you are willing to transfer to, says Cavell, because once you are matched, “you can’t back out.” There are several ranking strategies, then, because if you just want to leave your current House, you should rank all eleven. But if you have your heart set on a certain House, only rank that one because you could get sent to anything you rank.
So what would motivate someone to start over in a completely new House? Our unfortunate friend from before says that they applied to get out of the quad because they “want a different life.” As it stands, the rest of campus “feels far at times,” especially when it rains. And, being a SEAS student, they are not looking forward to the upcoming treks to the Allston campus next year. Sure, there’s the shuttle, but they are not enthusiastic, saying only,“You know how the shuttle works.” Their roommate, with whom they applied, has a romantic connection in the river and athletic commitments across it. The decision, they said, was a rash one, after seeing the application email, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Raphaëlle Soffe ‘21, a recent Adams House transfer from the quad, also has some logistical horror stories, from freezing legs to freezing bike brakes. But more so, she felt that being in the quad made her feel too distant from the Harvard bubble. That can be what some people want, but not her. She felt as if she lost momentum going back to the quad and wasn’t as able to take advantage of all of the events and activities going on near the yard. Now that she’s in one of the most central locations, she has more time for friends, classes, and even joined another extracurricular. She described her transition into Adams as “incredible.”
But not everyone is fleeing the quad. Jesse Thue ‘20, who got accepted for round two fall transfers last summer, is enjoying his new home: Cabot. He had few complaints about his old House in the river, but was drawn in by the “comfortable environment” on which Cabot prides itself. Before transferring, he would be studying in the Cabot d-hall (hidden beneath Pfoho, if you, like myself, have never been), and a Cabotions that he only kind of knew would invite them to come and study in their room with them. “They really go out of their way to make it welcoming,” he says, which is why, even though he has good friends in his old House, he felt he knew a “broader array of people” in Cabot, despite it not being officially in the House. In Cabot, he says, “There’s no reason to ever leave.” They have the tunnels connecting the entire House, and very few people outside of Cabot eat in the d-hall since Pfoho and Currier are so close. “Cabot,” he says, “sticks together.”
As for logistics, he is also a SEAS student, but, being a senior, won’t have to worry about the Allston shuttle next year. He is actually much closer to many of the engineering buildings that hide north of the Science Center. And he likes the walk to the quad. He doesn’t use the shuttles frequently. He owns a bike, but he lost the key to the lock. So the bike will stay in the quad, just as he will for the rest of his time at Harvard.
Even Rocket ‘21, who transferred into Leverett from Cabot over winter break, admitted that she still loves Cabot as a House for their strong sense of community. Her main reason for transferring was safety. Since she was involved in a lot of musicals, she spent a lot of time in the river, and ended up studying in Leverett dining hall until 4, 5, or 6 a.m. It’s about a 30-minute walk in the dark to Cabot, since there are no shuttles then, maybe a little longer if she drops off her friend’s p-set in the Science Center on the way. She recognizes that she is “lucky she didn’t ever get stopped,” because she’s heard of people who have. And she’s been very happy with her transition. “A lot of people say it doesn’t have community,” she says about her new House, but not in her opinion. Even though “you have to work a little harder than in Cabot because it [Leverett] has four buildings and lots of people,” the Lev community is strong. She’s integrated herself by joining House Committee and bartending at Stein in order to meet people. She’ll miss Cabot, but “you have to do what’s best for you and your safety.”
But not all transfers include the quad either. Andie Turner ’21 will be transferring from Leverett to another river House in the fall, after being rejected for a spring transfer. Due to some blocking issues, Lev getting new Faculty Deans, and her advisor leaving, she felt as if her “support structures evaporated.” She was in a hallway single for a few years and, while the privacy was nice, felt a little isolated. She wanted to transfer to River West Houses because her friends lived there and the location was better, and is also looking forward to the smaller community. As for the “random” algorithm that got her where she is, in her opinion, “Harvard doesn’t do anything randomly.”
This housing day, as the first-years nervously await their Harvard-given fate, the most comforting advice upperclassmen can give is that “every house is a great house.” This is probably true. We can’t know for certain since Harvard won’t release interhouse transfer data. But, if you’re unhappy with whatever House you end up in, be it quad or river, you can always (try to) transfer.
Illustration by Isa Gooijer ’23.
Jen Eason ’21 (firstname.lastname@example.org) will be in Kirkland till she die-ie-ies.