Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

February 12, 2003:

Dorm room draw
It's not who you are, or is it?

Back in the good old days, before "sit down, you suck" edged out "sis sis sis boom boom bah" as the cri de guerre of Tiger basketball fans, all Princeton students lived in gothic dorms.

Since then, things have changed. Nowadays, the venerable gothic dorms featured so prominently in A Beautiful Mind have been incorporated into Matthey and Rockefeller residential colleges and into the so-called "junior slums" — the string of pretty-on-the-outside, shabby-on-the-inside edifices that include Laughlin, Henry, and 1901 Hall. They have been replaced in the affections of undergraduates by the glassy, modernist blandishments of Spelman and by Scully's proximity to the Frist Campus Center. Of the gothic dorms, only Patton and Little — both recently refurbished — are in demand when it comes time for juniors and seniors to draw for rooms.

"Room draw" is the process whereby Princeton undergraduates choose their housing assignments. Seniors are given first priority; they submit their names to the housing department, whose incorruptible and merciless dean, Adam Rockman, determines the order in which they may chose their rooms. The first rooms to go are in Little, Pyne, and Spelman. Juniors, particularly those whose names come up at the end of the draw, are left with small doubles and triples in Brown and Edwards.

Students with special needs are given priority when it comes to picking a room. I've heard the stories, the rumors about housing assignments that have become the stuff of Princeton legend. Someone's friend's roommate had eczema, and so her doctor wrote a letter saying that the only place on campus she'd be able to live was in Patton — in a room on the first floor, with lots of windows and a spacious common area. A legacy from Massachusetts — "probably the most-legacied person at Princeton," a friend told me — wrote on his housing form that he wanted the same room where his great-granddaddy had lived during his stint at Old Nassau, and never mind that Spelman wasn't built until the 1970s.

But the best story about housing draw concerns my friend's boyfriend Eric, who was asked to take a year's leave from Princeton after he took a golf cart onto Poe Field and used it to run down the Public Safety officers who were dispatched to stop him. Upon his return to campus, Eric requested a single room, only to be told by the housing department that his demand would not be honored without a physician's letter. Eric fired off a screw-you e-mail to the housing dean, then got a psychiatric note and paid FedEx to hand-deliver it. By his own admission, Eric should have been expelled for the letter he sent to the housing dean; it seemed, however, that Princeton was interested in boosting its retention rate for the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and so the worst Dean Rockman could do was to stick him in the crummiest single room on campus. Eric spent his sixth — and final — year at Princeton in a miniscule room on the fifth-floor of Edwards, on the side overlooking a construction site.

During my freshman and sophomore years, I asked for a single room: on the housing request form, I wrote that I was diabetic, had the tendency to leave my used sharps lying around the room, and was afraid that if I had to live with other people, they'd call the CDC on me. Last spring, when it was time to select housing for my junior year, I had intended to again request a single room, but I decided to study abroad at the last minute. The options of students returning from a semester abroad or a semester's leave are limited; I'm hoping the housing department will do what they did with Eric and stick me in the worst single room they have, but it's likely I'll end up with roommates. In the event that I'm not assigned to a single, Plan B is to track down a cheap room for rent and live off-campus; Plan C is to buy a nylon tent and portable generator and set up camp on the golf course.

Moving back to campus after a semester abroad is further complicated by the housing office's policies, which mandate that room assignments for returning students will not be available until Tuesday, January 28, and that students will not be allowed to move in until Wednesday, January 29. Since I was away from campus fall semester, I stored all my stuff at home — 1,110 miles away in Columbia, Missouri. My parents rented a small SUV and drove up with my belongings — a diverse assortment containing two bicycles, a poster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and 20-odd bottles of insulin and related medical paraphernalia. Until I'm allowed to move into my new room, my parents and I are staying in a hotel and driving around Princeton in the SUV, which is so full that my mother has to sit on my lap while my father drives. My mother is understandably apprehensive about driving around in an SUV when the U.S. is about to go to war for oil. She comforts herself by believing that the bicycle affixed to the back will fool people into thinking that our vehicle is filled with climbing ropes and kayak paddles, and will convince them that we're environmentalists at heart.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu