The Residential College Model
Residential Tutors are the backbone of (Harvard’s) commitment to mentorship and human connection.
Erika Christakis '86
Co-Master at Pforzheimer House
The large-scale societal changes of the 19th century sparked a shift in American higher education, with academic leaders calling for curricula that could connect college studies to the world beyond and create an educated citizenry. Charles William Eliot (Harvard College President from 1869 – 1909), a proponent of educational reform, transformed Harvard from a colonial college to a “university system,” giving students more liberty to choose their course of study from a variety of subjects or electives. Following Eliot’s term, President Abbott Lawrence Lowell set out to change the way students were housed in order to make a more fundamental shift in how they were educated. He began by establishing freshman dormitories that served to create a residential environment dedicated to learning. Next he turned his attention to the upper-class students. Lowell believed that dividing the upper-class student body into segments similar to those in the English Colleges would allow for informal exchanges between peers and instructors about intellectual matters that would supplement and enhance each student’s formal education.
Lowell envisioned the Houses as places where younger classmates, living in close proximity with older students and Tutors, would together develop their minds, bodies, and character. Moreover, as enrollments grew at Harvard, the residential college system offered many benefits for undergraduate education: creating smaller, more personable living communities within the larger university; designing a residential system that provided for increased interaction between faculty and students; and offering a vibrant and enriching life outside of the classroom, regardless of one’s background or social class.
At Harvard, we have embraced Lowell’s vision for communal living among undergraduates, Tutors, and faculty and have realized this ideal with an eye toward the following goals:
- developing meaningful student engagement with faculty, Tutors, and fellow peers;
- advancing opportunities for students to explore, to create, to challenge and to lead;
- creating an inclusive community that values understanding, respect for diverging viewpoints, and free expression;
- promoting character development, personal responsibility, and civility;
- offering academic, career, and personal advising through an extensive Tutor advising system;
- fostering a healthy and safe living environment; and
- supporting lifelong connections to Harvard College.
What further distinguishes the Harvard House system from its peers is the community of graduate students who serve as Tutors. In 2010, Erika Christakis ‘86, Co-Master at Pforzheimer House, wrote about The Value of the Harvard Residential Tutor System noting that “Residential Tutors are the backbone of (Harvard’s) commitment to mentorship and human connection.” Among their many contributions, Christakis explains that Tutors are the “glue” between students’ academic and social goals; Tutors prod students toward greater “self-knowledge and personal responsibility”; Tutors support a diverse student body that reflects the world in which we live, and most importantly, Tutors provide day-to-day assistance in the following ways: holding monthly study breaks, mediating roommate problems, alerting students to opportunities within and outside the College, and serving as a general advisor to students. There is an extensive House-based sophomore advising program (http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~advising/soph/), and each House offers advising in the areas of law, medicine, business, fellowships, and public interest careers. Beyond academic advising, Tutors are assigned to specialty roles and offer advice and programming in: Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (SASH), Wellness, BGLTQ Life, Public Service, and Race Relations.
Ultimately, House affiliation and friendships extend beyond graduation and link alumni to their alma mater in a meaningful and lasting way. House Tutors and the Allston Burr Resident Dean continue to write letters of recommendations for alumni who are applying to graduate school. Undergraduates also benefit when alumni give back and serve as keynote speakers for special events, mentor undergraduates, attend annual reunion activities, and revel at House-sponsored tailgates at Harvard-Yale and Homecoming games. The connection to one’s undergraduate House lasts a lifetime.