This year will mark the second time Harvard hosts its annual Housing Day for first-year students online—last year, in the rush of campus closing, and this year, with more time to prepare. On Friday, the College will reveal each freshman’s assigned House via Zoom, rather than hosting a traditional, raucously exuberant, in-person event.
For many freshmen, the previous weeks have often been dominated by “blocking”: Harvard’s distinctive, notoriously stressful process of moving them into the residential Houses where most will live for the next three years. House assignments themselves are churned out randomly by computer, but blocking allows first-years to choose up to seven other classmates with whom they’d like to be placed in the same House. These blockmates frequently end up rooming together as well and, in many cases, become close friends.
Yet, the expectation that a group of blockmates will become best friends—one that is cemented in the lore of upperclassmen—often infuses drama into the blocking process as freshmen frantically group up, and submit those groups, a week before Housing Day arrives. This year, virtual college has changed the dynamics of making friends and, in turn, blocking. Wondering how freshmen are navigating the process, I reached out to a few first-years I’d met through classes and extracurriculars. I learned that the expectation that blockmates are supposed to be best friends persists—which prompted reflections on my own blocking experience.
My blockmates and I met as first-year students in Dharma, Harvard’s Hindu student association. We bonded at weekly Friday-evening prayers followed by community dinners held in different House dining halls. As we became acquainted with one another through worship and discussion, we simultaneously grew familiar, through those meals, with the various upperclass residences that jockeyed for our attention as Housing Day approached. In the week leading to the event itself, we were presented with themed, student-created music videos advertising the perks of each House through creative lyrics and synchronized dances.
“Housing Day will be one of your most memorable days at Harvard,” we were told by upperclassmen and administrators. The stakes were already high: I had felt pressured to find a blocking group since January, when spring semester began. After four undergraduate months, I didn’t yet have a group of classmates whom I considered my best friends. If anything, my closest friends were scattered across different social circles—and they all seemed to have their own friend groups.
I feared blocking alone (a circumstance that is stigmatized but common) and being perceived as a “floater,” Harvard lingo for someone who doesn’t block with others. In the end, I chose my blockmates based on our similar lifestyles—characterized in part by sobriety and shared cultural traditions.
On the eve of Housing Day, our five-person blocking group gathered with our fellow first-years in Annenberg for a special dinner, followed by a reception in the transept, where we posed for photos while clutching balloons that spelled out “2021” in thick golden letters. (This year, in lieu of a dinner and reception, the First-Year Social Committee will host an online Housing Day Eve panel discussion). The next morning, we gathered in Holworthy Hall, where my blockmate Pranati lived, and gazed out the ice-frosted window in eager anticipation. From the third floor, we had a clear view of John Harvard statue, atop which delirious upperclassmen clambered in a race to decorate the statue with their own House’s colors and apparel. We each had different hopes for Houses, but ultimately, we were assigned to Adams.
As a sophomore, I roomed with Pranati and another blockmate, Sreya, in a dingy Adams suite overlooking the Lampoon building. (For an update on the Adams House renewal, under way, see this recent Harvard Gazette photo essay.) Mice scurried through the walls—and burrowed into my snacks. In our war against the rodents and roaches cohabiting our suite, we developed a bond. My roommates weren’t my best friends, and I was okay with that. What bothered me was the expectation that the group we formed four months into our freshman year had to anchor my social life at Harvard.
Before arriving on campus, I had exuberantly scrolled through the College website, devouring stories of tight-knit blocking groups who did everything together. Early on, I envied those relationships: another set of blockmates with whom I was close did spend their days and nights together. Tight-knit blocking groups seemed to grow even more visible during the pandemic, as their members quarantined together for months in off-campus apartments from Cambridge to California. Meanwhile, my blockmates and I each spent our senior fall at our respective homes, catching up occasionally.
In January, Pranati and I returned to campus for our final semester, and a week later, went for a socially distanced walk along the Charles River. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year, aside from those infrequent check-in text messages and the Zoom calls we attended for each other’s birthdays last fall. Yet on paper we had always been similar: we both studied the humanities, read voraciously, and enjoyed writing.
“I feel like blocking, for me, was more of a logistical decision than a friendship decision,” Pranati confessed as we trudged through the February slush blanketing the riverbank. I couldn’t help but agree with her. Six semesters after our group of five blocked together, she and I were the only blockmates who chose to be on campus for our senior spring. We live alone in our own suites; she was coincidentally assigned to a room three floors above mine. Apart from the occasional in-person meetup, our interactions are confined to bumping into each other in Adams’s dining hall and its labyrinth of underground passages and assisting each other in times of crisis—even minor ones, like when I blistered my thumb last week and Pranati gave me a Band-Aid™. We connected best, it seemed, when helping each other out.
Eventually, I recognized that part of the reason for my physical and emotional distance from my blockmates was because we had each branched out socially since freshman year. I left Dharma as a sophomore, prompted by a realization that my worship was more individual and sporadic than congregational and disciplined. Pranati became the organization’s president, devoting herself to practicing Hinduism and studying it through comparative religion and literature. Sreya immersed herself in the South Asian student community and directed the annual cultural show. Blocking wasn’t the be-all and end-all of our Harvard experiences but, as Pranati put it, more of a logistical decision—whether we liked that or not.
This year, the freshmen with whom I’ve spoken tell me they believe there is less concern over blocking than in previous years. Many students haven’t yet lived on campus, so they haven’t developed a strong affinity for a particular House. Shraddha Joshi ’24, for example, spent both semesters at home in Austin, Texas, and met, socially distanced, with other first-year students from the area who were also living at home. Ultimately, Joshi and her hometown friends decided to block together—which was both convenient and fortunate for them.
Meimei Xu ’24, who spent fall semester on campus, said she met the friends who would eventually become her blockmates on Discord, an independent online community where she and other Harvard students got to know each other virtually last summer. Once they got to campus, they spent time together in person and ultimately formed a blocking group. “I don't know what the blocking situation is like for people who have been off campus all year,” Xu said. “I imagine it's a little bit rougher for them.”
Joshi said she “got really lucky” by being able to meet other first-year Austinites. “But if that hadn’t worked out, I guess I would have been generally okay with floating,” she told me. “I’ve heard from upperclassmen that it’s not as uncommon as people make it seem.”
The Dean of Students Office posted a webinar about the housing process on its website in mid December, along with important dates and deadlines. In the webinar, administrators and upperclassmen advise first-years on blocking, including cautioning them that “good friends are not always good roommates” and “you're not determining your best friends for life” through the process. “I think there have been a number of ways for students to ask questions about blocking and to get more information, but we know that it’s always a stressful time for first-year students to experience this,” associate dean of students Lauren E. Brandt ’01 told The Harvard Crimson in an interview last week.
First-year students have also taken it upon themselves to help make blocking less stressful this year through both College-sponsored and unofficial initiatives. The First-Year Social Committee organized a monthlong blocking series with virtual icebreaker game shows so freshmen could become better acquainted with one another before Housing Day. Meanwhile, three first-year students who describe themselves as “worried...about the prospect of being Quadded” (forced to live north of Harvard Yard) founded Quadsurance, which pools donations from interested first-year students and promises to pay them up to four times their original investment if they are assigned to one of the Quad Houses.
But for students like Joshi, being Quadded means nothing. “I’m honestly not too concerned about wherever I’m placed,” she said. And while she acknowledges the prospect of becoming closer friends with her blockmates during the next three years, she remains excited about meeting new people. “The House community is more than just your blockmates,” she pointed out. Xu agrees. She emphasized that while she loves her blocking group, she hopes to transcend the common expectation that her blockmates will sculpt her social experience at Harvard.
Even though first-year students seem to care less this year about where they’re placed, traditional concerns over choosing the right blockmates—or going it alone—persist. “The thing about Harvard that I've noticed,” Xu told me, “is that everything feels very monumental even when it’s not supposed to be.”