When Dartmouth’s undergraduate house community system launched five years ago, no one anticipated that a global pandemic would force faculty, students, and staff to adapt this residential model to new remote and hybrid realities.
Now, the house professors of Allen, East Wheelock, North Park, School, South, and West houses and their teams are preparing to welcome students back to campus for fall term. They talked recently with Dartmouth News about how they had weathered the past year-plus, what lessons they’ve learned, and what students can expect from their house communities in the coming year.
House Professor Janice McCabe
“I study college students’ friendship networks,” says McCabe, an associate professor of sociology. “Students have been able to maintain some deep bonds in the pandemic, but they’ve lost more of the less-strong ties that come from running into someone randomly”—in the dining hall, library, or “The Cube” social space that Allen House shares with School House.
Throughout the past year, McCabe says, she has been “amazed at how much students have embraced” the challenges of pandemic restrictions in Allen House—adapting orientation for the Class of 2024, finding ways to host social events remotely, engaging in outdoor and physically distanced activities when on campus, delivering care packages to students in quarantine, and so on. The Allen House student executive board put together a collective journal featuring house members’ artwork, poetry, recipes, and music.
“We gave copies to the graduating ’21s when they came by to get their senior gift,” McCabe says. “It was a way to commemorate this strange year.”
This fall, McCabe says, she hopes to build on the student leadership she saw develop during the pandemic. Over the summer, members of Allen House piloted a mentorship program pairing undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff members by interests. McCabe hopes that program will expand. And she looks forward to bringing Allen House students together again in person—as a house, as individual classes, and as smaller units, such as residential floors—for dinners and other events.
“I’m increasingly thinking about the house communities as an organizing principle of campus,” McCabe says. “We all miss each other—faculty and staff, too. As we get back to some sort of new normal, the opportunity to be together in community is going to feel better than ever for all of us.”
House Professor Sergi Elizalde
“We have learned that it’s very hard to replicate casual in-person interactions via Zoom,” says Elizalde, a professor and chair of the mathematics department. “At the same time, Zoom has given us the opportunity to organize events where all East Wheelock members, in residence or on leave, can participate. We will see if there is a way to continue this in some form.”
The pandemic led the house to develop some creative programming, including a virtual puzzle hunt in which teams collaborated over Zoom to solve riddles with clues about East Wheelock House and the house communities in general. Elizalde describes the activity as “very successful,” and hopes it will continue in some form in the coming year.
The house hosted game nights, weekly Zoom gatherings for members to check in with each other, and, as restrictions allowed, hiking and snowshoeing trips and picnic lunches on the patio above Brace Commons.
“We prioritized the basic well-being of students,” Elizalde says.
Among events planned for this fall, East Wheelock will host a barbeque and meat-smoking class with Professor of Computer Science Thomas Cormen and a dinner and discussion with Venezuelan singer Nella, as well as community dinners for the Classes of 2025 and 2024.
“We hope that we can resume a lot of the pre-COVID activities that we used to have,” Elizalde says.
House Professor Melanie Taylor
“Most of us think about communities as tangible things, with face-to-face social connections being the bedrock of our operations,” says Taylor, a professor of English and Native American studies. “The pandemic forced us to get creative about the ways that we come together and sustain relationships. It prompted us to reflect on what truly binds and bonds us as groups, and how we can leverage the non-physical aspects of community in order to stay connected and well. I hope we never forget the power of community to transcend geographical and physical boundaries.”
Like other house professors, Taylor, with her the team at North Park, wrote newsletters and organized a variety of virtual events to help students stay connected.
“We ramped up our opportunities for reflection and creativity through contests and initiatives throughout the year, and I hope to continue using creative expression as a tool for catharsis and growth through any and all seasons,” Taylor says.
For the coming year, Taylor says the house plans several initiatives to welcome members back to campus, from community dinners to rebooting the North Park Wellness Coach program—a collaboration with the Student Wellness Center.
“We know that mental health—including emotional, academic, and spiritual challenges—have always been part of our human experience,” she says. “Even for those of us who were on campus for the duration, the profound sense of loss and disconnection continues to haunt us. We all may need a little extra support this year as we navigate the tectonics of life in and—hopefully, eventually—after the pandemic. We’ll be working hard to offer a variety of opportunities for members to come together at their own speed and comfort level.”
House Professor Craig Sutton
Zoom fatigue is real, says Sutton, an associate professor of mathematics and director of the E.E. Just Program.
While members of School House worked hard to adapt programming to the changing realities of the pandemic—hosting virtual gatherings, providing care packages for students in quarantine—the experience has reinforced for Sutton the importance of face-to-face, in-person connection.
The house communities have a large role to play in helping to enhance the living and learning experience, he says of the return to normal operations this fall.
“In a sense, the pandemic is a koan inviting each of us to reflect on the meaning of community and the role sharing time and space plays in achieving the academic mission of the College,” he says. “Each class has been affected in particular ways and the lessons learned will guide our reimagining and strengthening of the intellectual and social connections that exist between students, faculty, and staff.”
As in the other houses, School House is developing programming both to welcome the incoming ’25s and to help the ’24s and ’23s acclimate to a more normal experience of campus.
Among the programs planned for the coming year, the School House Anti-Racism Coalition (SHARC—“the acronym goes with School House’s fish logo,” Sutton says) is organizing a series of events and watch parties around themes explored in the HBO series Watchmen.
“Over the past eighteen months, we have grappled with the twin pandemics of Covid-19 and racism. We are hopeful that our yearlong series will engage the Dartmouth Community in deeper and generative conversations around race, structural racism, and their impact on our society and culture,” Sutton says. “In an odd way, the pandemic created space for something like this to happen.”
House Professor Sienna Craig
During the pandemic, “Our first priority was providing a sense of care and support for students in all the different aspects of life, on campus or off, with the recognition that what that would look like was somewhat out of our control,” says Craig, a professor of anthropology. “We had to be flexible and open to change.”
Over the course of the past year Craig wrote a regular newsletter and the student executive council saw an increase in engagement over Zoom meetings. South House sponsored a variety of virtual and—as possible—in-person activities, including virtual conversations around specific themes, wellness-oriented “Thera-Tuesdays” at The Onion (the South House social space), faculty-student conversations outside on Craig’s patio, and care packages delivered to students in quarantine.
“It was especially important to our team to help the ’24s feel that they have a place that they belong on campus,” Craig says.
For fall and throughout the academic year, in addition to special events for the ’24s and ’25s, Craig hopes to organize opportunities for each class to feel recognized, and get to know each other, through programming focused on community building and wellness as well as intellectual engagement and social justice events, often in collaboration with campus or Upper Valley partners. One idea Craig hopes to make a reality is a mural contest or other public art activity for The Onion. “I would like to prioritize ways to help people feel like this is their space, and a creative place,” Craig says.
Craig says the house communities’ role as spaces where a cross-section of the Dartmouth community—students, faculty, and staff—can come together is more important than ever.
“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we are interdependent,” she says. “The more that people know that they are welcome in the house communities, the better.”
House Professor Ryan Hickox
“One of the biggest strengths of the house communities is how they facilitate random interactions,” says Hickox, a professor of physics and astronomy. Living in close proximity, students from vastly different backgrounds have a shared experience, he says. “But the pandemic made that really challenging. We realized that our normal way of doing things was simply not going to work. ”
To help members stay connected, West House sponsored a variety of virtual events, from conversations with guest speakers to game nights and “a virtual murder mystery,” Hickox says.
Even as members grew tired of Zoom, “our student leadership was really, really engaged,” he says—meeting weekly, even during the summer. Undergraduate advisors organized quarantine care packages. Hickox sent a regular newsletter.
For the coming year, Hickox says, “We have plans for things we’re going to do when fall term starts”—including events to welcome the ’25s and ’24s to campus and to help the ’23s and ’22s reconnect with each other and the community.
“But the interesting thing is that we’re not changing much from what we would do in a normal year,” Hickox says. “Building connections is precisely what we have been trying to do all along. The goal is still the same: We have this diverse group of people living together in a residential environment, and we want them to get to know each other and spend time together and appreciate each other.”
About the House Communities
House communities promote intellectual engagement, community, and continuity in the student residential experience. They increase student access to members of the faculty in residential spaces and build community by creating opportunities for enhanced social ties and shared experiences in the residential system.
Every undergraduate has a house membership, regardless of where they live. First-year students receive randomly assigned house memberships when they receive their room assignments in the summer. As a house member, students can participate in all house programs and activities, even if they live off-campus, in Greek housing, or in Living Learning Communities.
Each of the six house communities is co-led by a live-in residential education professional staff member and a house professor who lives nearby. In addition, each house community team consists of four resident fellows, a team of undergraduate advisors, and an administrative assistant. Students have leadership opportunities through executive councils in each of the houses.