(Not So) Special Interest Houses

As over-enrollment pressures college to fill every room on campus, spaces in language houses and other special interest houses become a part of regular room draw

By Sylvie Lyu

A unique part of the Middlebury experience is the opportunity to live in an academic or special interest house where students pursue a common interest and share it with the campus community. These include 10 language houses, the Queer Studies House, Self-Reliance and InSite, as well as special interest houses where residents try out food recipes, experience spiritual traditions or pursue mindful and healthy living.

“We watched a lot of Soviet cartoons, and we did a lot of cooking,” Julian Gonzales-Poirier ’23, a resident of the Russian House, said.

Having lived at the Russian House for his entire sophomore year, Gonzales-Poirier considers his experience as a mini-study abroad, during which he boosted his language skills and familiarized himself with Russian culture. Quinn Rifkin ’22, who has just begun his semester at the Italian House, hopes to immerse himself in the Italian language by chatting with his peers and the teaching assistant.

However, due to over-enrollment this fall, these special communities are starting to change. As the housing problem intensified, the school decided to re-appropriate some interest housing spaces for students without the shared interest.

“Our top priority has been to provide an in-person educational experience to all active students who wish to be at Middlebury this fall,” A.J. Place, associate dean of students, said. “We needed to be creative in using all available space possible, including any open space in interest houses.”

Currently, there are 301 students living in interest houses. Fifteen spaces in special housing were cycled into the August room draw, including eight from the Community Engagement House at 48 South Street. The Arabic House, where ideally five students sign the language pledge to speak only Arabic, now accommodates two Arabic speakers and three non-speakers.

Hazel Traw ’24, one of the two Arabic speakers in the house, has been studying Arabic for four years. She considers the language house an opportunity to practice using the language in casual settings. For Traw, the arrival of non-Arabic speakers came as a surprise. The Residential Life staff did not communicate in advance with her and the other Arabic speaker about the non-speakers, so they only realized what was going on at the first house meeting after moving in.

“I suppose it makes [our experience] a bit different, but I don’t think it makes the sense of community any worse,” Traw said. When she bumps into others in the morning or late at night, she is happy to chat with the non-speakers in English.

Sam Roubin ’23.5, a non-Arabic speaker, chose one of the few remaining doubles on campus with his friend in the August housing draw. As the portal displayed the house name as “Sperry,” he only realized he was in the Arabic House when he searched for it afterwards.

Currently, the Arabic House holds at least one event per week, such as cooking traditional Arabic dishes and watching Arabic movies. Students from different courses come over, and the non-speaker residents are always welcome to join. Roubin likes the homey feeling of the house compared to regular dorms, and the Arabic teaching assistant has been teaching him simple Arabic words.

Although not involved in the room draw, the Wellness House located on Weybridge Street also felt the pressure from the housing crisis. Supported by the office of Health and Wellness Education, the house is designed to encourage individual and collective well-being and substance-free or low-substance use behavior. To apply, students must submit an application and attend an interview.

Ansen Gong ’23, who was remote during spring 2021, admitted that he applied for the Wellness House to avoid off-campus housing at Bread Loaf — the only regular housing option left when he logged onto the portal at 4:00 a.m. in China for his lottery draw. He guesses that about half the residents came to Wellness for similar reasons, but he does enjoy living with everyone else in this small community with their own kitchen and laundry.

“If you want a quiet place to live, [Wellness] is pretty nice,” Gong said. 

On the other hand, Sophia Wittig ’24 applied for Wellness because she could not get a space in Bread Loaf, which is only open to juniors and seniors. “I specifically asked to go to Bread Loaf for the financial discount, but [the school] wanted us to have the on-campus experience that we missed last year,” Wittig said. She knows that many sophomores have the same financial concern and would gladly live at Bread Loaf if it were allowed.

Regardless of why students chose Wellness, concerning substance use, Wittig said that she had not “seen or smelled or heard anything”. During orientation, the residents made an agreement on quiet hours for weekdays and weekends. “[The house is] very quiet when I go back [at night], which is kind of nice.” said Ansen. 

However, apart from that, a common pursuit of wellness does not seem visible. “We have community expectations pasted on the wall,” Wittig said. “We’re supposed to have house dinners once a month, but that hasn’t happened.”

“We understand that it is not ideal to have a student(s) living in an interest house without that specific interest,” Place said. “If students are having concerns we’d encourage them to connect with their Community Assistant, the house contacts or our office directly so we can offer support.”