Of all Yale’s illustrious traditions and selling points, the residential college system is king. A residential college is not just a place to eat and sleep, we are told by tour guides; it is an indelible part of a Yalie’s character, a facet of his or her identity. Although other aspects of the Yale experience may change, the residential college system will be a constant, which is exactly why its deficiencies need to be considered.
The way residential colleges function now — limiting whom you room with to the roughly 110 students in your class and college — restricts access to living with your best friends. What are the chances that you will find your best friends among the students randomly placed in your college? Some groups of friends are lucky; Yale got it right and put highly compatible people in the same suite or at least in the same college. It is more common, though, to meet best friends through classes and activities. But with 12 residential colleges, it is much less likely that you would all be placed in the same college. All too often, you compromise by living with pretty good friends in your college and seeing your best friends at dinner, on weekends and through activities.
Living with good, but not best, friends certainly has its merits. This is certainly what Yale envisioned in making residential colleges in the first place — a community of scholars from varied backgrounds and of multiple interests.
I go back and forth about whether or not we should live with our best friends. I used to think that best friends are only maintained by a degree of separation. Best friends can quickly become non-best friends by too much intimacy. But what I’ve decided after two-and-a-half years here is that ultimately it does make sense to live with best friends. Between classes and extracurricular obligations at Yale, those random conversations you have late at night in the bathroom and those priceless moments in the dining hall should center on the people whom you most value at Yale. We don’t have a lot of time here to socialize, but when we do we should make it count.
Some students choose to get around the rigidity of the residential college system by moving off campus. But this requires sacrificing the luxuries of the residential colleges. In other cases, a student from one residential college will join an established group of friends in another college by transferring. This is, however, an involved and often competitive process. Given how difficult it is to transfer a meal in Berkeley Dining Hall, can you imagine what it must be like to transfer into the college? There’s also a stigma against transferring; you have to prove why you want to do it. Plus, the process often involves a cost-benefit analysis: if you are in a renovated college, is it worth it to transfer into an unrenovated one just to be with friends?
Fortunately, there may be a way to both preserve Yale’s sacred institution and your best friends. Unfortunately, it involves Harvard. Though its house system is decidedly less integral to the undergraduate experience than Yale’s residential college system, Harvard students are placed into colleges after freshman year. This allows for the possibility of living with your “blockmates” (Cantab lingo for suitemates) as well as the possibility of living with an entirely different group of friends, or making some combination of the two.
Would the college experience be different if we were placed into colleges sophomore year? Invariably, yes. But I believe Yale would do a good job of incorporating the freshmen. The question of intramurals could be resolved by having freshmen dorms compete against each other, while also being affiliated with one of the residential colleges during freshman year. Freshmen in Timothy Dwight and Silliman would continue to live in those colleges freshman year, with the understanding that not all would live in that college the next year. Freshmen could eat in Commons Dining Hall (as was its original intent) and get to know all the other members of their class. Yale could extend its freshman advising (there is, after all, a new Director of Freshman Affairs) to compensate for the lack of master/dean advising which, as I remember from freshmen year, was not extensive to begin with.
Admittedly, this would complicate the stability of residential life at Yale. There are many questions that would be raised, but I also think the change would do less harm than good.
You may not remember who you went to the freshman screw with or what you wrote your senior essay on, but you will always remember your roommates. Why not remember them as legitimately being your best friends — like at every other school?
Steven Engler is a junior in Saybrook College.