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On reforming Duke’s housing model

The current Duke University housing model lends itself to self-segregation. This is a major obstacle for the diversity-celebrating, inclusive environment for which Duke claims to stand. 

As it stands, affiliated students live with groups that they join in their first years, before they even declare their majors. Meanwhile, unaffiliated students live in houses where a self-fulfilling prophecy—a lack of community in independent houses—impedes the development of new friendships.

Self-segregation plays out at Duke in the form of selective living groups that create pockets of students who often unintentionally limit themselves to interactions with people in their selective living group. After all, as a general rule, people spend a lot of time where they live. 

Surely, we all value meeting amazing new people. So what’s the issue? Why is it that after your sophomore year, unless you live in a living group’s housing section, it is uncommon to casually strike up a conversation with someone in the hallway, or befriend the people next door? The answer is simple: misconceptions of community. 

Even for students who live in living group housing sections, “community” is not directly correlated with a meaningful undergraduate experience—one in which they are able to frequently encounter people from all corners of campus. 

While 34 percent of Duke students are Greek-affiliated, and several more are selective living group (SLG)-affiliated, independent students learn to patch together friend groups and maintain individual relationships, just as affiliated students will learn to do post-graduation.

Far too often, I hear of first-year friend groups that are driven apart because so-and-so joined X fraternity, while another joined Y fraternity. Since the other members of the friend group are unaffiliated, and thus not invited to the social functions of their affiliated first-year friends, formerly meaningful friendships dissolve. 

Joseph Dolan-Galaviz is a senior from Austin, Texas, who made his closest friends at Duke on East Campus.  Reflecting on his experience at Duke, he said, “The splintering of the first-year student body that occurs every January via rush is tough enough on the relationships that formed in the fall. When everyone separates into their respective living groups sophomore year, it becomes much more difficult to maintain friends.”

“How are two people supposed to maintain a friendship when you are not only unable to participate in the same social activities, but also can never share those random, organic common room conversations? When do you find time to just hang out?” The responsibility to mindfully introspect and answer Joseph’s questions falls on us all. 

Of course, as you navigate college and learn more about yourself, the people you surround yourself with will—and perhaps should—similarly evolve. However, nothing about joining a selective living group intrinsically means that all the people you could ever befriend are going to be perfectly curated in that specific group. 

When you live with a limited, small segment of the student body for multiple years, you are insulated from, in short, everyone else. Touting the array of intellectual curiosities, back stories and relative racial, socioeconomic, and geographical diversity of our student body is disingenuous in the face of our housing model. 

Notably, the university has understood the problems within our housing model and made remarkable changes to address it. The quad model, which gave names to independent houses, was an attempt to create a sense of affiliation for students who did not rush or were not invited to join selective living groups. However, after five years, it is safe to say that a new approach is required—not because the Housing and Residence Life office failed, but because the cultural elements at play require a more dramatic solution.

In a couple of years, Central Campus apartments will be gone, and two new on-campus dormitories will be fully operational. We are rapidly approaching a period in which the housing model can and should be revamped to counteract self-segregation in our living spaces.

First, Duke needs a housing model that promotes inclusivity. Living groups such as Greek organizations and selective living groups are forced to restrict their membership for the sake of space. Housing limitations justify their maintenance of a degree of exclusivity—one that allows students to exclude other students on the basis of a couple conversations and, inevitably, major assumptions on the characters of their peers. This may be mitigated by either significantly increasing the size of housing sections for selective living groups, or eliminating the affiliated housing system entirely. 

Fundamentally, the structure of housing must change as well. Yale has a residential college system where students are randomly assigned to one of fourteen close-knit communities. In these houses,  students develop a sense of home, and are able to live in relatively diverse communities. Greek organizations still exist, so students are able to join multiple communities without having one dominate their social lives. At Duke, a similar model would have, for example, students from first-year dorms Wilson and Giles shuffled into Kilgo Quad for their upperclassmen years. These students would still be able to supplement their social life with Greek and other selective organizations. 

Third, we need to deconstruct, once and for all, the stigma of independent houses being dorms devoid of community. This is best exemplified by the East Campus random assignment model. When first-years arrive, there is (largely) an appreciation of your dorm as a new home, where you actively seek to meet new people. Your roommate might just become your future maid-of-honor, and the excitement of living with peers pulsates through common rooms and the first-year dining hall…until the prospect of joining living groups begins to occupy minds, of course. 

If people are able to build long-lasting friendships in their first-year dorms, there is no reason why such an environment cannot be recreated in upperclassman dorms. This brings me to my fourth point: we need more House Council leadership and Resident Assistants who take active roles in building and strengthening community. 

In one independent house—Avalon—House Council president Harry Liu works hard to bring people together around the house’s identity and ensure his House Council maintains a two-way relationship with the dorm, rather than one of one-way event email blasts. 

“The biggest challenge facing House Council is getting people to embrace the community. Rejection from rushing SLGs or fraternities can leave individuals demoralized and may make people hesitant to put themselves out there again,” Harry said.

Personally, living as a Resident Assistant in Avalon has been by far the greatest living situation I could imagine. I have been able to befriend people with whom I have no classes, participate in no extra-curriculars with and share no cultural or religious background, but am able to learn from and relate to in ways I never thought possible. 

Nonetheless, it is pivotal that we all—irrespective of affiliation status—take responsibility over the social norms that define our university climate. In the words of Avalon’s House Council president, “We can all make a difference. It takes time and work to build a community, just like with friendships.” But then again, nothing remarkable ever comes easy. 

Bettering student experiences in independent housing is just one piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, we need to redesign the housing model to provide strong and vibrant communities for all. Until then, self-segregation will continue to unfold as students miss out on meeting truly remarkable peers. 

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. 

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