Tying the Knot
Navigating College life after committing matrimony
In late May, before 200 hushed and expectant onlookers, David Lambert '98 and I performed the undergraduate unspeakable: we committed matrimony. Most of the guests had witnessed the genesis of our love during our first year, or had watched it grow during the next one, so the rejoicing was general. But one silent spectator was indifferent at best, and challengingly skeptical at worst-Mother Harvard.
Like any suspicious parent presented with a child's Intended, Mother Harvard had some concerns. The "worthiness" of the prospective spouse was never doubted, as we had both passed the test of "getting in." But there remained the laden question, sententiously intoned, "And what are your [pause-a skyward sniff, a curl of the lip] plans?"
While Harvard has no actual parental figure judging students who marry as undergraduates, the attitudes such a figure might present were conveyed clearly enough by the administrators who govern College life. Our only conflict stemmed from our wish, as rising juniors, to continue living on campus in the House system. This seemed reasonable and even logical, given the oft-touted and unmistakable centrality of the Houses in undergraduate life.
We articulated this request in a letter to the dean of undergraduate housing, Thomas Dingman '67, who informed us that only the House Masters could make the decision. David met with his tutor, who advocated our case before the co-Masters of Winthrop House, and I spoke with Master Robert Kiely of Adams House. He then presented our petition to a meeting of the 13 Masters, who refused it. According to the letter we received, the College had denied us permission to retain proximity to our two-year-old social network because we had "passed on" to a new phase of life.
But after handing us the initial bad news, Dean Dingman was extremely helpful in securing for us the least inconvenient Harvard Real Estate apartment possible. And we love our home in Peabody Terrace; it is nicer housing by most objective measures than the Houses provide.
Even so, a couple of factors in the College's handling of our case still rankle. First is the sentence in Dingman's letter that summarized the Masters' decision. The letter listed three options: we might move off campus and retain our current House affiliations; we might move off campus and transfer our affiliations to Dudley House (which exists to accommodate married and other "non-traditional" students); or we might simply postpone marriage until "you have completed your undergraduate careers." Evidently these administrators failed to recognize our decision to marry as the carefully weighed choice of mature adults. The tenor of the letter-at once coolly official and patronizingly paternalistic-seemed to indicate that the College viewed our plans as the whim of errant children. Coming from the institution that had promoted so many other aspects of my growth into adulthood, this hurt.
The very purpose of a campus is to locate a group of people in close proximity to each other, so they may conveniently interact, participate in activities together, and share in a common experience. Ending up in Peabody Terrace put us in closer walking distance to the Yard and the River Houses than are denizens of the Quad. However, the message is clear: we are no longer considered to share in that common experience. The decision implies that now we have no interest in the undergraduate life happening 10 minutes up the river.
My husband was particularly alarmed by the fact that we were no longer guaranteed housing during our undergraduate years. If we take time off or study abroad, our housing prospects when we return rely on a Harvard Real Estate lottery process, with more applicants than there are places.
There is also an irksome suspicion that our banishment was a politically inspired decision. Both Master Kiely and Dean Dingman mentioned to me the College's policy of allowing only single-sex rooming groups in the Houses. Since it is common knowledge that heterosexual couples (clandestinely) and homosexual couples (anonymously) live, or effectively live, together, the policy feels like some relic of a bygone era of chastity. However, if the College openly allowed mixed rooming groups, it might appear to be tacitly condoning unmarried unions, possibly provoking parent and alumni outrage. Instead of confronting this inarguably thorny issue, the administration has chosen to emphasize the fact that campus housing is already too crowded. This reasoning rings shallow for two people who would have been accommodated readily in the Houses had they remained single.
I feel our exclusion in small, strange ways. Every day, I place calls to people in Harvard's telephone network. Repeatedly, I pick up the phone and dial the last five digits of the number-as anyone hooked up to that system can do. It's just a shortcut, the quick convenience of pressing two fewer buttons. But I am met only with the expectant crackle of the phone line; we are no longer linked to the network. It is a closed system, and now we are out of its loop.
This isolation, this feeling out of the loop, characterizes most undergraduate marriages, according to a number of Harvard students and alumni. Removed from the pulse of College life by both geographic distance and the different rhythms of married life, students have had to seek other support systems. For many, Dudley House has provided that support. Dean Dingman explains that the House, where he also serves as Allston Burr senior tutor, makes a concerted effort to include spouses (whether or not they are affiliated with Harvard), and Dudley activities are geared toward families with children.
Scott Ericson '94 and his wife, Suzanne, made Dudley the focal point of their social life. Although Scott was 44 when he started his studies here and Suzanne was working full time as head concierge at the Hotel Meridien, he "made a point of being active within Dudley House" and even chaired the House committee. Suzanne, who also made friends there, notes, "We had to create support systems and friendships more akin to our own situation. It was not the 'true' university experience, but it was worthwhile."
For other married undergraduates, that sense of connection comes from outside Harvard altogether. Michelle Hickman '94 and her husband, Troy '96, describe how they turned away from the College for social sustenance, relying instead on their church, work, and other friends who were Harvard graduates. "We felt very isolated," says Troy. "I came to know very few persons outside of my concentration because I didn't have the House system to facilitate such friendships." The Hickmans' detachment from campus was furthered by their living in East Cambridge, as Harvard property rents were prohibitively expensive. Two years of 15-minute bus rides and 10-minute bike rides "made Leverett Towers seem wonderful" to Troy in retrospect.
Harvard cannot fairly be expected to offset the financial burdens of independent living. According to director of undergraduate financial aid James Miller, the College's policy is to treat married students no differently from single ones in allotting financial aid: the responsibility for Harvard expenses is still borne by each individual set of parents. However, the couples themselves face special problems: the need for housing in or near Cambridge for 12 and not nine months a year, and the possibility that one spouse may be caring for children and thus unable to work.
In our case, with both of us enrolled, the housing costs for term-time just equal market rents off campus. The monthly rent for our one-bedroom apartment is $804-almost exactly what we would pay in College room costs for the 1996-97 academic year, a charge of about $400 apiece each month. It works beautifully, except that we have had to cover three months of summer rent as well.
Many married students feel the weight of emotional and psychological challenges more heavily than pragmatic obstacles. The demands of a marriage can divert energy from academic pursuits, and vice versa. Scott Ericson explains, "Marriage means another person who expects a quality relationship, while Harvard expects your blood and your first-born male child." However, it is not necessarily the specific academic demands that can threaten married life, but the pervasive intensity of the place. Such was the experience of Danette Engelman '95, an older student who came to the College married and left divorced. "It's hard to watch [your spouse] be accepted and immersed," she says of her husband, who was not involved in her daily student experiences. "Harvard affected us in recondite ways."
And for younger students who marry during their college careers, there is the burden of people's reactions. In addition to the families involved, students must contend with their peers', professors', and advisers' opinions. Those who knew David and me well recognized marriage as the natural culmination of our relationship. Initially, though, most of our more casual acquaintances were shocked.
Troy and Michelle Hickman also faced a number of discouraging reactions, which trebled when their first child was born during Troy's senior year. Young marriage and parenthood are uncommon at Harvard, Troy points out. "There was generally a look of thinly veiled disapproval or unbelief," says Troy, "a horror at the idea of being a parent and an undergraduate." When Michelle went to her House office and the registrar's office to change her name after the wedding, the women in both offices advised her strongly not to do so. The Hickmans grew skeptical about Harvard's professed goal of embracing diversity; according to Troy, the College "didn't care about any aspects of our lives apart from academics and career preparation."
Despite these impediments, a few students each year do choose marriage as undergraduates. As Dean Dingman points out, "Wonderful, sustaining relationships can begin at any point in your life." To this I would add: the love that wells up from those devoted relationships can inform and enhance every other aspect of students' lives. It can be focused so that it promotes academic, interpersonal, and spiritual growth. It can benefit the community and the families in which it blooms. Harvard can choose to be that community by adopting a more inclusive policy toward married students living on campus.
In the last paragraph of the handbook that the College sends to all parents of first-years, it advises moms and dads not to be alarmed if their children pursue unexpected paths at Harvard. The book reminds them that the children are now sailing their own ships, and that parents should "Come along...but keep in mind that it is a new voyage, someone else's voyage." To the extent that Mother Harvard is also an exacting parent, she should heed her own counsel and support the various courses that her children take, even when two of those courses converge.
Miriam Udel Lambert '98 is a Ledecky Fellow.
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