He adored residential colleges. He was too romantic about them. To him, their sense of love and belonging defined the core of Yale: community.
Despite the corniness of these lines, I have a desire to feel the same affection for Yale’s residential college system as Woody Allen has for New York City in his opening monologue to Manhattan. In a college uniquely distinguished by its strong community, there is heightened pressure to love the feature at its core. After all, who remembers the chants that rang through Payne Whitney Gym during YaleUp? And let’s not forget the late nights with FroCo groups, or the ceremonial opening dinner hosted by our colleges. All of these events were geared towards cultivating a love for the residential college experience.
Yet, when asked how much I like the residential college system, I respond with modest enthusiasm. For all its benefits, which I’m sure multiply as time passes, I nonetheless find the residential college system to be restrictive in the context of the first-year experience.
My criticism is one that appears counterintuitive: residential colleges can actually impede the potential formation of close relationships. Though the system does cultivate community within a college, even if simply by virtue of location, it precludes us from getting close to people in colleges besides our own. Many of my peers have told me how they’ve met others in different colleges who they would like to know better but stay, at best, friendly faces or acquaintances. I’ve experienced the same difficulties. The obstacle: different ends. The very people I am trying to know better are themselves trying to connect with their intra-college friends more closely.
This bias towards peers in our own colleges makes sense. These are the people we will live with for the next four years, so we ought to invest in a good start. It’s also impossible to ignore the convenience and comfort of having a group to fall back on for anything — meals, a night out or simply to pass time. An unfortunate consequence, however, is that the residential college system unwittingly gears us inward, an unfortunate outcome given the range of diverse, interesting and unique people I’ve met outside of my college. This isn’t to say that people in my college are homogeneous, uninteresting and unremarkable, but surely by a matter of numbers we meet a broader range of people from the sum of 14 colleges as opposed to one.
At other colleges, the housing system encourages students to build friendships outside of their floors and entryways. After all, new college students are on a mutual search to meet others. But this is discouraged by the residential college system. Of course, many might argue the purpose of the colleges is the cultivation of fewer but more intimate connections. Although this ought to be our goal in later years, in our first year of college we would be better-served in getting to know peers outside our college.
Perhaps this is crazy, but in a way, I wish our first year of college included a bit more frenzy and chaos. I want to partake in the refreshingly mysterious and uncertain nature of making friends in a new environment sans a safety net, which too often pulls us into complacency. Residential colleges provide a nice fallback option, but it’s one we have all year long. I find the prospect of expanding the range of people we interact with, even for short periods of time, to be useful in diversifying our network of friends. And best of all, there are reforms, even mild, that could potentially make the best of both worlds.
There could be more interactions between colleges through jointly hosted events. Additionally, we could have a few days during Camp Yale where we become part of a new FroCo group with students from all colleges. Finally, we could arrange for first years to have intra-residential college housing in their first term but random rooming in the next. Of course, all of these suggestions have their inconveniences — especially the logistical nightmare of changing rooms and suitemates. Nonetheless, these types of ideas should be seriously considered.
To be clear, I understand that the residential college system is supposed to cultivate personal and meaningful relationships. I am by no means arguing for quantity over quality of friendships. I also recognize there is a limit to the number of intimate relationships we can form and meaningful interactions we can have. Nonetheless, I do think that quantity and outward exploration may be beneficial during our first years in order to establish connections with varying networks of people and to make friends outside of our colleges. Though inter-college friends will likely be made down the line in our Yale experience, I still believe the first year experience should promote them.
I came to Yale hopeful about the residential college system, and even now I can’t help but admit that I truly do love my college, sometimes in a Manhattan-esque way. I hope to eventually look back on this article and ask myself, “what was I thinking?” But while I understand that the residential college system is probably the best of all potential housing systems, it won’t dissuade me from saying what needs to be said: it can still be better.
EDWARD SEOL is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .