Perkins and Conant Hall conjure up many memories for GSAS alumni, from late night intellectual chats, to home cooked meals, to a friendly face at the end of a long day in the lab or the library. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the construction of Perkins and Conant Hall, GSAS hosted a reunion for former residents. During two panel discussions, alumni and current students recalled their favorite moments in the residence halls.
An Intellectual Environment
Kicking off the alumni panel discussion, GSAS Dean for Student Affairs Garth McCavana, PhD ’90 in romance languages and literatures, shared how in the days before Dudley House was established as the graduate student center, graduate students cooked—or learned to cook—their meals in the residence halls, which built a strong community.
Alexandra Amati, PhD ’94 in music, agreed. “The kitchen became the center of life,” shared Amati, who arrived at GSAS from Italy possessing only high school level English. The residence halls helped her not only improve her English skills but also provided a deeper education. “Living in the residence halls became my introduction to American culture.”
Many of the speakers praised the intellectual environment that was an important aspect of life in the residence halls. Yonatan Eyal, PhD ’05 in history, recalled staying up late to finish a biography of a pre-Civil War politician. When he left his room in the wee hours of the morning, he found a fellow resident in the lounge, a PhD student in the study of religion. Not only did this student know the book, but the two went on to engage in a conversation about what they’d read. “I never would have met him and other students I connect with without the residence halls,” he shared. “It’s unusual to have residential life at the graduate level, with an erasure of the boundary between living and learning.”
Sorell Massenburg, PhD ’16 in applied physics, initially resisted the idea of living in a dormitory in graduate school but was persuaded by a friend to consider Conant or Perkins. He was surprised at how much he loved living in the residence halls. “Poets, musicians, government students, and fellow physicists from all over the world—in the dorms we were all in it together,” he said.
Gregg Tucci, PhD ’98 in chemistry, who lived in the halls years before, echoed the importance of this intellectual environment. “I remember going room to room meeting people and learning about the diverse fields they studied,” he said. “I made friendships that persist today.”
Audience members also shared memories spanning more than 50 years, discussing the days when roommates were assigned, a single landline phone was located in the Perkins entryway, and cockroaches were commonplace.
Making the Halls a Home
In the second panel, Director of Student Life Ashley Skipwith introduced five current resident advisors, who are responsible for making the halls a home for residents. Tuo Liu, a PhD student in romance languages and literatures who studies French literature, came to Harvard in 2011, and with the exception of a year abroad, he has lived in the residence halls. “I came straight to Harvard after undergraduate studies, and I thought I knew what I needed to know about myself,” he says. Meeting people with experiences and interest so different from his own made him realize how much more he had to learn. “If I hadn’t lived in the residence halls, I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn from so many different people,” he says. “It was a safe environment for me to learn and grow.”
Nicole Bush, a PhD student in molecular and cellular biology, believes that three factors make the residence halls so special: community, diversity, and work life balance. “I’ve grown being surrounded by such a dynamic interesting community,” she said, “both by what they study and where they are from.” Bush also appreciates how the interdisciplinary community in the GSAS residence halls spills over into the academic realm. She recalled sharing a scientific paper about the effects of solitary confinement on the brain with a hallmate who studies romance languages and literatures. “She studies the violence of silence in French history, and she ended up using it in a paper she was working on,” recounts Bush.
For Matthew Barfield, also a PhD student in romance languages and literatures, the residence halls have meant home, and welcome home, for the last six years. “I felt welcomed even before I arrived, and when I arrive, my resident advisor was the first to welcome me,” he remembers. “I had such a great RA that I decided I wanted to be one.”
The idea of home resonates with Amaneet Lochab, a PhD student in organismic and evolutionary biology, who found not only a home away from the lab, but also a home away from home. “I could go home and to find an event happening, and that was a great escape from the lab,” she said. “I wanted to be a resident advisor to build the community that I had benefited from.
As an international student studying toward a PhD in physics, Rhine Samajdar’s experience in his home country of India shaped his expectations when he arrived in the US. Students at his undergraduate institution India were told that they deserved no luxuries—which included basics such as hot water or running showers. “I can sum up my experience at Harvard in three words: respect, hope and gratitude,” he said. “It was a great surprise to find respect not just as a student but as a human being.”