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Some things never change: examining the ebbs and flows of College House culture over the last 15 years

February 23, 2024

Courtesy of Samantha Schwimmer '21
FROM HOUSE TO HOME: Alumni share their anecdotes from living in College Houses and the perspectives that they gained from the experience.

While College House interviews for the upcoming academic year are underway, several alumni reflect on the evolving College House cultures over the last 15 years.

House culture

Chase Taylor ’12 was the vice president of Reed House during his sophomore year. Taylor noted that while other houses had strong affiliations with specific groups on campus, Reed was not associated with a notable campus identity before he moved in.

“I think the people that lived [at Mac and Quinby] at the time were perceived as being cooler, and then Ladd and Baxter were definitely the ‘bro’ College Houses. If you were on a sports team, you would live in one of those houses,” Taylor said.

However, Taylor’s year set the tone for future house culture that carried on for years to come.

“I would say half of the people were leaders in the outdoor club. It was outdoors club and Frisbee members, so maybe we started that trend,” Taylor said.

Samantha Schwimmer ’21 observed similar patterns in house identity a decade after Taylor.

“Mac and Quinby could either be very sports-heavy or very artsy. Their identities were a little bit more amorphous,” Schwimmer said. “Baxter had the reputation of a frat-athlete house, but then my year it didn’t really end up being that.”

However, Associate Director for Residential Life and MacMillan House alumna SJ Tinker ’13 noted a shift in house culture in recent years to rewrite some of the fratty aspects carried on from the houses’ pasts. During an interview with a prospective college house resident, Tinker was impressed by how much these narratives have changed.

“A student said that their first choice house was Baxter and the primary reason was when you walk by, you get this welcoming vibe and you feel like you belong there,” Tinker said. “When I remember Baxter as a student, that was not the vibe that I got when I walked by at all. And that strikes me as an amazing contrast. That feels very much like it’s in the students’ hands of how we create the culture that we want to see on our campus.”

Traditions and events 

Over the last 15 years, many traditions have remained the same while others have come and gone. MacMillan alumnus Ben Bousquet ’20 noted that Mac-o-ween was an important house tradition at the time; Mac-o-ween still takes place every year, while other traditions, like the Cold War party, have lost favor.

“In the fall, our biggest event was Mac-o-ween, which was Mac’s annual Halloween party,” Bousquet wrote in an email to the Orient. “In the spring, Mac hosted the Cold War party with Quinby, as well as a brunch over Ivies. Those were probably the biggest yearly traditions from the time I was there that the whole campus knew about.”

Director of NextGen Student Leadership Development Sara Binkhorst ’15 shared that many athletes lived in her house, driving a culture of athletic team partnerships with the house. Beyond those collaborations, Binkhort highlighted that smaller events like “Baxter Wedding” and a mock presidential election between two professors were also notable.

Taylor echoed Binkhorst’s sentiment, recalling that when he lived in Reed, the Office of Residential Life pushed for houses to introduce more academic programming. During his time, Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Hadley Horch gave a popular talk on taste and perception, where members of the house tried an assortment of foods after eating berries that inverted their taste buds.

Both Tinker and Schwimmer emphasized that part of living in the house was realizing that they could use that money for intrahouse bonding and events as well.

Schwimmer mentioned when Helmrich used their house budget to bring actor Paul Adelstein ’91, most known for his roles in “Prison Break” and “Private Practice.”

“We spent a ton of money to have him over for brunch—which benefited very few people, but it was really cool. We partnered with Masque and Gown, and he talked about acting and how to navigate the industry,” Schwimmer said.

Schwimmer also appreciated events like house bonding lock-ins and alumni parties where she got to form closer bonds with past and present members of her house. Tinker mentioned First Friday trips to Portland art galleries and weekly house dinners as core parts of her College House experience.

“Now, what I’ve observed is it seems like the traditions that stick and that really get going are the ones that come from people with authentic passion,” Tinker said. “And then it becomes so fun to carry it on and spread that love.”

Experimental changes

While many elements of the application process and programming, such as House Olympics, have been conserved throughout the last 15 years, the people living and using the spaces have structurally changed.

Tinker, Binkhorst and Taylor were all affiliates of their houses through their first-year bricks, unlike the current model in which affiliates are spread across each dorm.

“I think before my time, you could only apply to your affiliate house. And then during my time, you could apply wherever you wanted, and they gave preference to affiliates. It was sort of like, ‘We invested in you and you invested in us, and so if you wanted to carry out the vibe of Mac, great,’” Tinker said.

In MacMillan and Quinby, upperclassmen—some of them returning house members—were given spots along with traditional sophomore residents.

“At my time, there was a push in those houses to actually have more upperclassmen living in those houses…. I think that was ResLife really wanting to make the houses more of like a cross-class thing,” Taylor said.

Tinker said that this short phase was not particularly successful and caused tension between new and old members.

“My year we had a tricky situation where there were four or five returning Mac residents, some folks who had lived there as sophomores and then returned as juniors,” Tinker said. “That was really hard for us because they had a really set idea of what Mac is.”

In 2018, Ladd House, formerly known for hosting campus-wide events like Epicuria, served as an experimental senior class College House in response to the scarce on-campus social scene for upperclassmen.

“One of the big complaints in general when I was a freshman and a sophomore, which was pre-Covid[-19], was that there wasn’t enough on campus social life. It was this idea that so many people are doing stuff off campus, and that’s less safe and harder for the college to regulate,” Schwimmer said.

Just a few years later, in 2022,  Ladd was closed for renovation and became the headquarters for five College offices, rewriting past history and associations of the space.

Party Culture and Alcohol

Courtesy of Samantha Schwimmer '21
GOOD LAUGHS, GOOD TIMES: Helmrich Resident Samantha Schwimmer '21 discusses past party-culture precedent prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

College House culture largely influences the underclass social scene at Bowdoin. Yet, the dynamic of Bowdoin’s party culture has significantly shifted in recent years. Schwimmer described the excitement for throwing parties in her year as a Helmreich officer.

“Every single officer meeting we had, we would all fight over who’s getting to do a party on this night versus that night, and there would be a party like every Friday and Saturday, usually like two parties per night,” Schwimmer said.

According to Taylor and Schwimmer, most of those events were registered as substance events.

“I would say 95 percent of any registered event on campus was an alcohol event. And the systems were in place with ResLife to do that in an open and safe way,” Taylor said.

However, providing alcohol at College House parties provided several additional challenges.

“I think there was a constant kind of struggle between the Brunswick Police Department (BPD) and campus security. And during my time, there seemed to be kind of this detente of sorts, where BPD would largely stay out of campus issues, and security would be the first ones anywhere, and they would deal with issues,” Taylor said.

However, in 2010, Taylor cited that a grant provided to BPD from a Christian organization with a mission to curb underage drinking changed the perceived safety and security previously associated with drinking in College Houses.

“All this funding went towards overtime for BPD, which they then essentially used to patrol around Bowdoin a heck of a lot more, and I had a lot of friends that got written up for open containers and underage drinking,” Taylor said.

A huge spike in transport cases followed this development during Taylor’s junior and senior years.

“ResLife was super concerned about shadowy hard alcohol drinking in your dorm room before you go out rather than [drinking at college houses], which they saw as not completely legal but a safer place than being in the dorms,” Taylor said.

Yet, many unspoken rules that allowed for alcohol to be purchased for events also created an exclusive socioeconomic culture within the houses.

“Having a responsibility to provide party space was definitely the sentiment of our returning juniors. And part of that, and this was common at the time, was dues—personal money that you would pull for the house for purchasing alcohol,” Tinker said. “It felt socially very unacceptable to opt out of that.”

As a student on financial aid, Tinker used money from her on-campus jobs to fund her house dues, creating an unexpected caveat to living in the houses.

“It felt really hard to give my personal money—like a couple hundred dollars per semester—to buy alcohol  specifically for first years to come to parties. I think that the sentiment was you know to pay it forward and give it back and for me, I definitely didn’t go to live in a college house for that,” Tinker said.

When Schwimmer lived in Helmreich, dues were contributed voluntarily and anonymously, but alcohol-related issues when throwing parties persisted. Schwimmer expressed that finding alcohol hosts for parties was like “pulling teeth,” and following arrests after a transport incident from Helmrich, house residents felt uncomfortable taking on that liability.

“They ended up charging our e-hosts and a-hosts for serving minors even though [the transported minor] didn’t even drink at our house,” Schwimmer said. “Bowdoin provided legal representation for the students, but it was crazy.”

By contrast, Howell president Syd Benjamin ’19 spoke to the value of hosting substance-free events on campus.

“Because we weren’t spending our money on parties, we got to host some really fun events…. Haunted Howell was a blast,” Benjamin said. “We hosted [Portland restaurant Taco Escobarr’s] chef at Howell and paid them to do a tortilla making and taco making demonstration.”

So why College Houses? 

Despite its challenges, alumni shared the sentiment that living in a house was a formative part of their experience at Bowdoin.

“It was also the first time where I really felt that sense of real community at Bowdoin because I didn’t really love my pre-O trip, and I didn’t have a great freshman year dorm experience. So having a house was really the first time where I was like, ‘This is what it feels like to live in a collaborative community and disagree with people constructively, and to try to build something together,’” Benjamin said.


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