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An institution of many firsts, Harvard was the first American university to create a housing system that provides an intimate residential experience for undergraduates and faculty. Harvard guarantees College housing to each student for four years, and nearly all students choose to live on campus throughout their undergraduate careers. By design, residential life brings together students and faculty in what is an essential part of the Harvard experience.
At the end of the first year, students form their own rooming groups for assignment to one of the 12 Houses, small academic and social communities of 350 to 500 students within the larger context of the College. Each House provides students with much more than a place to live, featuring its own dining hall, common rooms and facilities for academic, recreational and cultural activities. A broad mix of students and faculty makes each House a microcosm of the College.
A senior faculty member serves each House as a Master. Masters make each House a home by hosting frequent open houses in their private residences and by selecting an extensive staff of both resident and nonresident tutors and faculty fellows. Together, Masters and House staff set the tone for the House in its activities and in its functioning as a close-knit community within the context of a larger college and university. Tutors, representing many fields of study, provide counsel for students on academic matters, fellowships, and graduate school admission. Tutors also take initiative in organizing and participating in intellectual, cultural, and extracurricular activities in the House, such as discussion and language tables, as well as House sports, drama, music, art and community service activities. A 13th House offers a social and academic gathering place for students who elect to live off campus.
With its central goal of forging a link between learning and living, the House system at Harvard cultivates an assortment of intellectual and cultural activities and traditions. Houses are places where learning occurs all the time, whether in the dining hall as students share a meal with teachers and visiting scholars, or in House tutorials and seminars, taken for degree credit. A large number of department tutorials and course sections meet in the Houses, allowing students to take meals with their professors and section leaders in the evenings, either before or after they have class. Each House also sponsors faculty and Senior Common Room dinners. These formal dinners give students the opportunity to invite professors, administrators, and teaching fellows to dine at their House, furthering the extension of intellectual life at the College.
Individual Houses also maintain unique academic and social traditions, from weekly discussion forums, film societies, dramatic groups, and productions to barbeques, weekly teas, exam-time breaks with milk and cookies, and spring celebrations. Throughout the year, Masters' open houses are pleasant chances to socialize with the Masters and other members of the House.
Each House fields its own athletic teams in intramural sports ranging from hockey to squash to ultimate Frisbee in the quest for the "Straus Cup," which is won annually by the House with the highest standing at the year's end. Freshmen also compete among first-year dorms in the same sports for the "Yard Cup." Each House has its own self-governing body, a House Committee which organizes and sponsors many of the House activities described above, as well as neighborhood public-service programs.
Students with ideas and energy add greatly to the activities and traditions of the Houses. With the Masters, Tutors, and affiliated House members, they help to maintain the strong tie to the academic and social life of the College. But exactly how that is done and what springs up culturally and recreationally varies each year, based on the interests and efforts of the students who call their House a home.
During the 2011-2012 school year, staff photographers from the Harvard Gazette chronicled the year of the House community. You can read the stories in the links below: