By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff
Tamari Miller, a soft-spoken fourth-year from Jamaica, once found himself in front of 300 of his fellow students dressed like Sebastian the Crab, singing a song from The Little Mermaid.
Miller is very clear about why he swallowed his shyness, threw oven mitts on his hands as claws, and sang with a crew of his housemates dressed like jellyfish: “It was beneficial for me, and it was beneficial for Halperin House.” Miller was competing in the annual Karaoke Night, a competition hosted by Jannotta House for students in South Campus Residence Hall.
The unique design of the UChicago House System, with 38 houses of up to 105 students each, has allowed each house to develop its own traditions, rituals, and sense of community. Even with a yearly turnover of students, the distinctive cultures of the houses remain, helping new students quickly become acclimated into strong communities with durable personalities.
My house has become like a family.
Second-year student in Breckinridge House
“The traditions and customs of each of the residential communities have a formative impact on the feelings that the students have towards the University,” says John W. Boyer, dean of the College.
Thousands of students have fond memories of throwing their dignity to the wind during Karaoke Night, for example, a tradition that started with Fishbein House at the old Shoreland Residence Hall in the 1990s and moved to Jannotta House in South Campus in 2009.
Sean Lee, the Resident Head of Jannotta House, says the students are strongly invested in keeping this tradition alive and improving on it. “The acts are getting better every year,” he says.
More traditions than days in the school year
Miranda Cherkas, a second-year in political science who lives in Breckinridge House, has a hard time pinpointing her favorite house tradition. There’s the “Brecksgiving” potluck on Thanksgiving, the weekly movie night in the house recreation room, and “FunRise”—on the first day of every quarter, the whole house walks to Promontory Point to watch the sunrise and wave the Breckinridge flag.
“My house has become like a family,” says Cherkas, who participates on the Breckinridge Scavteam and vows that she’ll get out of bed to boost Breckinridge’s numbers during the Kuvia winter festival one of these years.
Cherkas recently participated in one of the College’s most time-honored traditions: raising money for her house by selling creative T-shirts to other UChicago students. She sat in the Reynolds Club at a table covered with T-shirts that read: “That’s all well and good in practice … but how does it work in theory?” The slogan, which pokes fun at the UChicago emphasis on ideas, is registered with the Office of Undergraduate Student Housing, so no other house can print this shirt. Breckinridge raises about $2,000 in annual sales.
The marketplace for house T-shirts is highly competitive. "If I wanted an A I would have gone to Harvard” (registered to Wallace House) challenges the all-time best-seller, “Where fun comes to die” (Tufts House). Students trudge through snowdrifts toward their exams in T-shirts that confirm "Hell Does Freeze Over" (Hoover House), while others go meta: “The University of Chicago: wearing self-deprecating T-shirts since 1892” (Woodward House).
The money from T-shirt sales helps fuel another popular tradition: house excursions around the city. Nearly every house organizes trips to see events such as sketch comedy at The Second City, a live recording of the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” or a professional sports game.
Many houses invite others to join their excursions. Rickert House organizes a ski trip on College Break Day during Winter Quarter. Maclean House invites a few nearby houses to a dinner at the popular Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao. Flint House leads a fall apple-picking trip to a local orchard. May House takes student volunteers to the Chicago Marathon.
There’s always room for one more tradition. The annual Chairman’s Cup broomball match between Alper House and Crown House sprouted from a friendly challenge in 2009 between Andrew Alper, chairman of the University Board of Trustees, and James S. Crown, University Trustee and former chairman of the Board of Trustees. The winning house gets the “Golden Broom” trophy and a year’s worth of bragging rights.
Traditions of service outside the house community
Emily Hatch, a second-year philosophy student, was the keeper of a different kind of tradition when she was the Community Service Representative on the Alper House Council last year.
“Engaging with the community is an important part of the Alper culture,” Hatch explains. She has led multiple trips to Ray Elementary School, where students help landscape a wildflower and vegetable garden on the school grounds. She has also led service trips to the Brickyard Community Garden in Woodlawn and to the Ronald McDonald House near Comer Children’s Hospital. Each of these organizations has a long-standing relationship with Alper student volunteers.
In addition to the beautification and goodwill that these service events generate, Hatch says there is another benefit: “We all bond during these service activities,” she says.
Other houses have equally strong service traditions. Thompson House, for example, helps women at the YWCA with their resumes and job searches multiple times throughout the year, and Dodd-Mead House mentors the youth on the South Shore Drill Team with equal dedication. All the houses in the College participate in the Engage Chicago Through Service activities.
“The cohesion of the housing system is built on service,” Miller says. Miller moved out of his house after his second year, to work as an assistant resident head in Graham House in Max Palevsky.
“I wanted to became an RA because, as an international student without any family in the area, the House System was my home,” he says. “Finding the support I need in the people around me has a lot to do with how comfortable I am here, and how much I have enjoyed my college experience.”
Miller brought a few of the Halperin House traditions to Graham when he moved, including a popular restaurant trip where everyone is assigned to sit at a table for two, called Awkward Date Night.
But for now, he is leaving Karaoke Night to the experts.