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Not Quite a Home Away from Home

Can college be a home? We often jump to thinking about ways to make college more of a home for students. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. This question hinges on what the definition of “home” should be, which can and does vary widely.

I first began thinking about this as a high school student, imagining what college would be. In 2015, a year of protests at many universities, one exchange at Yale University stood out to me. Student protesters were confronting Nicholas Christakis, then a master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, mainly in response to a controversial email about toleration of possibly offensive Halloween costumes, sent by his wife and fellow master.

The conflict stemmed from differing points of view on what kind of community should be fostered at Yale’s residential colleges. One student protester argued, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It’s about creating a home here.” She got more agitated as Christakis refused to accept the same assumption.

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In the discourse following the protests, others posited that college could not be a home. Professor Alan Jacobs of Baylor University, for example, wrote that a residential college is “a place where people from all over the world … come to live together temporarily ... It is an essentially public space.” A writer in the Atlantic argued, “Homes are typically places where parents instill their own values in kids whose formative experiences they shape ... Insofar as [college] includes students from diverse homes, it will be unlike an actual home.”

I remember these unconventional opinions because they were quite scary. As a high school student, I didn’t want to imagine college as a place that I wouldn’t be able to call home. But I found these arguments persuasive, in theory at least.

By negating the arguments above, home is a permanent, private, and undiverse place. A safe space, if you will. I am fortunate that I can describe my home that way. At home, I can do essentially whatever I want, knowing that I have the unconditional love of my parents. They would attest to how difficult I can be to live with. At home, even though we can disagree, the range of intellectual debate is rather limited. That is because of the lack of diversity. When it comes down to it, my parents look similar to me, lead relatively similar lives to me, and have imparted values to me that I still, for the most part, agree with.

How, then, could college be like home? Indeed, having gained enough experience so that I no longer merely imagine but can reflect, it is not.

College is not this comfortable because, obviously, it does not give its students unconditional leeway. At Convocations, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana says once you are admitted, you do not have to jump through more hoops; you can do what you want. But that refers to academics and extracurricular activities. When it comes to social life, you can’t do whatever you want. You have to be a good roommate, a good friend. You have to earn the respect and love of your peers.

College is not about me, you, or the individual. It is hard to let down one’s guard the way one can do at home, mainly because of the lingering awareness that the dorm is only a temporary living situation. So I don’t walk around barefoot, or leave my stuff lying around, or decorate the walls. I don’t know most people who live here and thus don’t get past the polite pleasantries that I can skip at home.

College is also not as comfortable as home precisely because of the diversity of people — though that is not a bad thing. The point of going to college, and in particular living at one away from home, is to leave the nest and grow up. To see what, and who, lies outside.

That is why, even though I do not really consider college a home, life is far from bleak. In fact, I don’t want college to be more like my home. That place — a sheltered escape from the outside world —  is more accurately now my childhood home. And I should not be a child anymore.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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