Not all Cornell dorms are created equal. From the moment we arrive on campus, we quickly conclude that the back alleys of the Low Rise community pale in comparison to air conditioned, plasma TV-lit, Mews Hall lounges. Before we know it, our freshman year housing perceptions extend to the greater campus, locked into a standard metric: West is best, the Gothics are much less desirable and South Campus is the housing annex. Campus culture accustoms us to evaluating a dorm based on its amenities rather than what a residential community can offer beyond a roof over our heads. A residence hall and a community have become two very different things at Cornell.
On North, we are reminded of our lack of dorm identity each time a freshman complains that “nobody talks” in the halls past O-week. On West, the cult-like following of Cook chicken wings and Becker cheese dinners strikes the closest resemblance to dorm spirit. Our housing tradition remains in shambles, so four months into our first semester at Cornell, it’s no wonder that many first-years aim for the seemingly greener pastures of upperclassman housing.
Whereas many juniors and seniors flee from the residential system, freshmen roll the dice, unaware of the hit-or-miss reality of on-campus housing. We underclassmen find ourselves sucked into a lottery system, naively hoping for an earlier time slot that we will in all likelihood not be granted. But can we really blame freshmen for these high hopes? On North, for those in the Low Rise community, an early time slot would mean a chance at livable conditions — even the Gothics of West Campus seem a step up. For others in Clara Dickson Hall, new housing offers a chance to escape the maze of its halls.
But for now, all we freshman can do is hope that our living assignment will be simply inhabitable — let alone become a home we can be proud of. When certain dorms are perceived superior to others, hall identity as a central part of the college experience is greatly undermined. To balloting freshmen, a West Campus House is only as good as its dining hall’s menu. At the same time, Sheldon Court and Schuyler House are cast aside by virtue of their location and acquire a reputation akin to Toby’s desk in The Office. In lower-ranked housing, a sense of pride is stymied because of a residential hall inferiority complex: It’s all but impossible to forge a loyal community when everyone in it feels they’ve drawn the short straw.
The root of our lackluster residential culture lies within the housing lottery system — a process that replaces freshmen’s enthusiasm with dread for a later time slot. Perhaps it’s this shallow housing outlook that prompts the dissatisfied third of each class to seek a stronger sense of community through Greek life — the dorm vibe just doesn’t come close.
To reform this housing outlook, we can look to fellow Ivies, many of which are known for a thriving residential life. In Harvard and Yale, residential halls are perceived as equal yet very different, primarily due to the quirks and unique identity within each. In fact, when I first toured Cornell, I thought this would be the case here as well. Little did I know that pride within newer brick buildings or the historic Gothics would be reduced to the amenities within each. Cornellians prioritize their dorm’s shower water over whether that dorm will offer a residential community.
To revive our housing identity, let’s start with new traditions. From campus-wide dorm competitions (I’ve been fantasizing over campus-wide capture the flag) to communal rites of passage within each hall (yes, this starts with coming to the RA’s socials), we must willingly become one with our Ithaca homes. The obligation is upon ourselves to instill a deeper legacy as we pass the baton to each incoming class and look beyond rankings based on survivability. This way, the foundations of tradition will solidify with each coming generation.
In the meantime, our culture stagnates with each incoming class whose criteria for next year’s living arrangements continue to factor in amenities and factor out hall atmosphere. Fixed perceptions of campus housing erode our college living standards, which further discourages hall pride. Our nonexistent residential identity fosters self-segregation in each coming generation of Cornellians, and much of the current batch of freshman has already been numbed to this culture sink.
So for now, let’s extend our version of inter-dorm competitiveness beyond redundant boasts of a newer building’s lounges or its hotter shower water. No longer can we let these physical amenities define our residential culture. For some, change starts by replacing any sense of disappointment in a dorm with newfound pride. For others, the time has come to face this campus-wide problem and step out from air-conditioned and plasma-TV-lined bubbles. With housing season soon approaching, I call for a residential life culture makeover.
Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.