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Better Brain Break for a Better Harvard

Sad bagels. Meager cereal. Lackluster fruits. Brain break has not been Harvard University Dining Services’ best work lately. One particularly disappointing night last week, I spent a few minutes standing by the Quincy House brain break. In the span of a few minutes, multiple students walked in, glanced at the desolate display, sighed, and left. Some students studying in the dining hall brought in outside food and others waited downstairs for the grille to open. Several of my friends outright refused to go to brain break with me, saying there was little there to eat.

We talk a lot at Harvard about how to foster community, ensure inclusion, and encourage engagement. In addition to House events, House neighborhood events, entryways study breaks, College-sponsored social events, the University even has a Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. In the end, all of these initiatives, task forces, and programs are about fostering community. They are about making people feel at home in their spaces.

Yet there is an extraordinarily simple way for the College to take a step toward achieving this. It won’t cost too much, won’t require any new programs, and I believe it will create happier students, closer-knit friendships, and better House life. What is it? Improving brain break.

The College has done this before. Since February 2016, Annenberg Hall has expanded its brain break offerings, including hot meals and later closing times. Undergraduate Council representatives have pushed for this as a way to build a more cohesive freshman class. Last year, when I was a freshman, the special brain breaks featuring grilled cheese, pancakes, or ice cream were the most widely attended. They became hubs of activity. I would bring my roommates, catch up with friends, and relax. If this initiative worked for the freshmen, why not expand this to include the Houses and why not make it routine?

The recipe is simple: Students, especially late at night, like food. Clubs know this, which is why our inboxes are buried under a deluge of emails promising free cookies and pizza for attending meetings. House Faculty Dean events, after all, probably turn out large numbers of students in no small part due to their homemade goods. Imagine if brain break resembled that, even in the slightest.

Why is Lamont Cafe, nestled inside a library students love to hate, often bustling with activity into the wee morning hours, while the Houses lack the same vibrancy? I would bet it’s the food. House grilles often serve as communal gathering spots late into the evenings when they are open. Meanwhile, Yale has its own system of grilles, called butteries, in each house that open at night. Students call them the best part of the school.

House dining halls are open for the duration of the night. They are expansive common spaces, ripe for the fostering of collaboration and cohesiveness. Yet they lack the bustle they should have.

Here is my suggestion: One night a week—I suggest Thursday—HUDS should upgrade brain breaks in the Houses. It will work well after community dinner, and many students have fewer classes on Fridays. Serve any variety of food, just anything better than the meager fare served now. I would bet that students would turn out in much greater numbers. They would turn the dining halls into the centers of commotion that they should be.

Imagine the dining halls as places to meet those friends from across the hall and bond over shared interests. They could be the foundations for building the cohesive House communities we aspire to have. Picture your dining hall, each week, filled with students late into the night. This could happen.

As an example, take the weekly Physics Night in Leverett House. With better food, the whole dining hall fills with activity. Friends from Quincy head there instead of our own dining hall for brain break. Every House could look like this.

Maybe then the College can achieve its dreams of turning the Houses into centers of student communities. Think about that. With better brain breaks, anything is possible.

Caleb J. Esrig ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House.

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