MYERS: In praise of off-campus life

No decision I’ve made since coming to Yale has aroused quite as much curiosity, surprise and occasionally outright suspicion as has my choice to move off campus this year. The surprise, at least, I understand. What could be more central to — and thus more emblematic of — the Yale experience than life in the residential colleges? To some people I’ve talked to, opting out of Berkeley seems to suggest almost a rejection of Yale itself.

Yet this decision is already the best I’ve made here. As I think about the contrast between my friends’ ambivalence and my own delight, it seems to me that what’s at stake here is our understanding of the residential colleges and of how they fit into collegiate life. Are the residential colleges the only way it’s possible to live at Yale? What might the alternatives make possible?

Don’t get me wrong: the residential colleges are among the things that drew me to Yale in the first place. They do a remarkable job of fostering community within microcosms of Yale College, of meeting the logistical and domestic needs of five thousand undergraduates and of using this combination to integrate public and private life. I like the idea, and I think Yale implements it well. But I’ve discovered I want something different.

I first considered moving off campus for strictly logistical reasons. For me, as a transfer student entering Yale last year after two years at another school with a tight-knit community of its own, Berkeley’s community was already secondary to my cohort of transfers and friends of friends. As room draw neared, I realized that, through no fault of its own, Berkeley could only constrain my living arrangements in my junior and senior years.

Off campus, by contrast, I have the pleasure of living with friends scattered far and wide by the residential-college sorting hat: the six of us nominally belong to five different colleges. A month into the semester, we’re still improvising our domestic rhythms, individually and collectively. I’ve so far cooked dramatically less than I’d intended, for example. But my housemates and I find such autonomy liberating rather than burdensome. (And it is cheaper.)

All this I expected. What’s surprised me these past few weeks has been social. Far from isolating me, living off campus has made me more active on campus. I’ve joined more groups, and I go to more events. I enjoy them more, too. Where last year I found the 24/7 hubbub of on-campus life exhausting, even oppressive, I now appreciate campus more during the day knowing that I’ll leave it and return to my own house at night. I can choose, day by day, how much of my life I want to live inside the bubble and how much independently.

Not everyone wants or needs this kind of volitional distance from campus life. Indeed, I recognize that what I appreciate about my decision to live off campus is possible only because most Yale students don’t. It’s only because residential college life is so vibrant and so all-pervasive that I’m free to opt in and out at will. Thus the seeming paradox: I’ve needed to move a block and a half west of campus in order to feel properly at home on it.

I don’t wish to argue against the colleges or try to persuade anyone else to move outside their gates. Rather, I offer this account to underscore what I think Yale’s pride in the residential college system, however justified, makes us forget: the colleges, as the default way of living at Yale, offer only one vision of what collegiate life can be. The alternatives are not contradictory but complementary.

Cory Myers is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at cory.myers@yale.edu.

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