Nada Shoreibah ‘23
Each spring, roughly 200 women and non-binary students sign up to join the socially-and service-oriented eating house community. On February 1st, they are eagerly welcomed by current members during a Saturday of festivities. While this process is rooted in Patterson Court traditions, it continually evolves to meet new challenges. This year, significant changes include renaming the process and notifying students who are placed in their fourth choice house by email on January 31st.
The most noticeable change in eating house proceedings is of the title of the sorting process from “self-selection” to “placement.” After an unprecedented nine students were placed in their fourth choice house during 2019 self-selection, the Patterson Court Council (PCC) chose the alternative name in hopes of increasing transparency. “We thought that the term ‘self-selection’ was a bit misleading as far as how the process works,” said Turner Recruitment Chair Ellie Lipp ‘22. “While you do rank your houses, you’re not guaranteed your first or second choice.”
After submitting a ranking of the four houses, students are automatically placed in one by a binary integer programming algorithm. Originally applied to eating house assignment by Anthony Albert ‘01, Tim Valdes ‘01, Mary Hunter Wylie ‘02 and Mathematics and Computer Science professor Dr. Laurie Heyer, the algorithm places as many first-years as possible in their highest ranked house while keeping the number of members in each house balanced. “The first choice house costs 1, the second choice costs 2, and so on,” explained Heyer. “The algorithm finds a way to assign each [student or] cluster to a house such that the total cost is as small as possible.”
“A basic philosophy that the people who have been involved in the houses over the years have is that all four of them are equally valuable to the college,” said Mike Goode ‘83, Director of College Union and Student Activities. To uphold this philosophy, roughly a quarter of all applicants are assigned to each house. The algorithm also takes into consideration how many members are currently in each house.
Practically, maintaining the size balance prevents a number of logistical issues. “It’s hard for a house to function […] if we have too many people,” said Warner President Anne Ridenhour ‘21. “You have to account for how much food to make; our kitchen’s not that big [and] we have one chef. There’s also [limited] floor space.”
The algorithmic nature of placement also speaks to the inclusivity of the eating houses. “I like the whole idea of placement because it’s computer generated,” said Audrey Meigs ‘23. “It’s not like the sorority vibe where students are choosing other students.”
Despite its merits, the constraints of the algorithm mean that a portion of first-years don’t receive their first or even second choice. But before last year, receiving one’s fourth choice was largely unheard of. “The way it was talked about among the community was […] ‘You have to list all four choices, but you’ll never get your fourth choice,’” said Goode. Naturally, the unsuspecting nine who were placed in their fourth choices felt doubly disappointed on reveal day. “It kind of dampened the day for people that actually wanted to be in that house,” said Connor president Michelle Zhou ‘21. “Someone’s first choice could be someone else’s last choice.”
The PCC hopes that notifying those who receive their fourth choice the night before reveal day will allow them enough time to process the news. “It […] gives everybody more time to reflect on if they’re going to be an engaging member of their fourth choice organization,” said Turner President Julia Tayloe ‘21. Upon receiving an email from PCC Eating House Ambassador Tiffany Onia ‘20, students can choose to either join their fourth choice house or remove their name from the list.
By and large, first-year applicants appear to support this change. “I would appreciate it,” said Marissa Lassell ‘23. “It would give me more time to think about if I want to stay with my fourth choice or just not [join a house] this year.”
Rusk Recruitment Chair Margo Naifeh ‘22 encourages students who receive their fourth choice to take their time getting to know the house before deciding to drop. “You’re going to find your people in any of the houses, and you can always switch at the end of your semester,” she said. Moreover, the four houses are not as separate from one another as potential future members might think. “We are an eating house community just with different teams within it. Ultimately […] being in one house, you’re in all four.”
The final change will be to one of the most beloved reveal day festivities. On the night of the reveal, new members are showered with “toppings.” Historically, these have included ice cream syrups, barbeque sauce, and, most recently, colored coded powders. Tossing up a cloud of colorful powder seemed fun in theory, but in practice left a difficult clean-up job. “It was really mean to maintenance,” said Naifeh. “The bathrooms were absolutely destroyed, […] the grass outside was stained.” This reveal day, the PCC has opted to use glow-in-the-dark paint and shaving cream.