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Greek Myths, Italian Scrabble, and Green Dinners

Specialty communities on Bay State Road

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Behind a homemade Venetian mask for Carnivale is Casa Italiana’s Aizhan Kushumbayeva (CAS’13).

At BU’s Classics House sits an unremarkable plastic tree that residents have named Daphne.

Most people would fail to see the humor here, but it is typical of the mischief permeating the brownstone at 176-178 Bay State Road, populated by students majoring in classical Greek, Latin, or archaeology: Daphne, a nymph in Greek mythology, prayed to her father, the river god, to save her from the pursuing Apollo’s desperate advances. Her father turned the tender virgin into a laurel tree

“Residents in this house are fun to be with,” says resident assistant Olivia Huleatt (CAS’12). “We have the same nerdy sense of humor. Someone could make a joke about Caesar, and everyone would get it.”

A Greek supper by Classics chefs Rebecca Sgouros (CAS’11) (from left), Celia Kelly (CAS’10), and Shawn Ellis (SED’13).

Despite being new to the community this year, Huleatt had no problem fitting in with Classics House veterans. “During a blackout early in the school year, I went to get flashlights for students,” says Huleatt. “I came back, and all I could see were these silhouettes of what had to be all my residents, and I saw this big tree. They were carrying Daphne. They must have seen the light, because they started shouting, ‘She’s here, she’s here!’ Once everyone dispersed, I saw this plastic tree sitting in front of my door. I thought, ‘I have arrived. This is the Classics House.’”

Students living across the street at La Casa Italiana, at 193 Bay State, might assume Catullus is the name of a car, but they don’t require simultaneous translation for La traviata. While it’s not la dolce vita all the time, these students are joined at the hip. But what’s an Italian house without a communal kitchen? (The modest one here succumbed to a minor stove explosion, but has since been replaced.) RA Michael Figuccio (CAS’11, SAR’11)—who has lived in La Casa Italiana since freshman year—routinely has students over for cooking and hosts small events such as Italian Scrabble night.

“We watch Italian movies together; we go to the North End,” says Nicolle Castro (COM’12), an advertising major from Ecuador, who is fluent in Portuguese as well. “The house is addicting. We call each other ‘la famiglia.’”

“What makes our house special is the people that live in it,” says international relations major Jatnna Garcia (CAS’14). “We have people from all different backgrounds and nationalities, and it is amazing the amount of things we have in common, one being our interest in Italian. I love learning about different cultures, and living in the Italian house has facilitated that so much.”

Many of the on-campus specialty houses not only serve as surrogate family homes, but as miniature institutions of learning. The University has 25 such communities, which include the language houses—French, Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Japanese—as well as the Community Service House, Environmental Awareness House, Hospitality Administration House, Music House, and Education House (the original specialty house). There are also seven specialty floors in general population dorms, from the women in science and engineering floor in Warren Towers to the reportedly haunted writers’ corridor in Shelton Hall.

“We prefer to call them specialty communities rather than houses,” says Yvette Lancaster, an area director for the Office of Residence Life. Although some freshmen end up in the houses by luck of the draw, most apply and must meet certain requirements, which often involve either taking a relevant course or having a specific major relating to the house.

“We want it to be about more than the real estate,” Lancaster says. Molly Whelsky, another area director, agrees: “We’re working really hard right now to attract core groups, students who are really invested in the community. We’re reviewing applications carefully.”

At its best, she says, specialty housing can “make BU seem like a much smaller place.”

Some houses are more successful than others; everyone who visits La Maison Française (153 Bay State Road) seems to feel beaucoup d’adoration. Other houses have fallen victim to lack of interest: Russian House, R.I.P. Houses that work best combine an exuberant RA, a committed faculty advisor, and students with more than a superficial interest in the subject, according to Whelsky.

Common Ground residents and friends with advisor Katherine Kennedy (far right).

While common area furnishings in the houses are usually no more distinctive than those found in a basic hotel chain, the rooms themselves often retain a whiff of Victorian grandeur, with ornamental moldings, chandeliers, and fireplace mantels, and they subtly bear the community’s imprint. There’s a lone stuffed panda in the otherwise unadorned common room of the Chinese House, but according to RA Tina Zito (COM’11), the room comes alive with dumpling parties and auditions for the Chinese Student Association’s C-pop performances at the Tsai Performance Center.

“In fall 2009, we had Zhang Yimou [Hon.’09], the famous Chinese film director, speak at the house,” says Zito, a film major minoring in Chinese. “It was an honor beyond our wildest imaginations.”

This semester, all the language houses will be competing in a cook-off. Each house will have a team responsible for creating an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert that best represents their house’s culture. Figuccio, perhaps not impartially, considers La Casa Italiana as the frontrunner. “My advisor said it’s win, or she doesn’t want to be my advisor anymore,” he says.

For the Common Ground House (158-160 Bay State), the curriculum is an interest in other people. “The Common Ground House provides a real-life experience for students who want to live, learn, and socialize with people from various places, races, cultures, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, and sexual identities,” says advisor Katherine J. Kennedy, director of the Howard Thurman Center, BU’s multicultural center.

At the Music House (207 Bay State), you can find all types of music enthusiasts, says RA Bo-Min Son (CFA’12). “It’s one of the places on campus you can experience and feel the drive and passion for music 24/7,” says Son. “We have a bit of every genre: classical instrumentalists, engineers who play rock, Broadway actors, and rock stars.” Even with so many musicians under one roof, Son says that the noise level never becomes a problem. “Someone wouldn’t be blasting their amp at 3 in the morning,” she says. “We all know what’s noise and what’s music.”

Homemade dumpling night at the Chinese House.

Other specialty houses beyond Bay State Road include the Community Service House, the Performing Arts House, and the Earth House, all located on Buswell Street in South Campus. The Earth House is associated with the University’s Sustainability@BU, which is focused on the well-being of the environment.

“The students in the Earth House try to constantly incorporate sustainable actions into their everyday lives,” says RA Anna Faber-Hammond (CFA’12). “We try to preserve water and energy as much as possible.” Earth House residents work as EcoReps, in association with Sustainability@BU, and promote environmental awareness. “Currently, we are trying to put together a sustainable dinner,” says Faber-Hammond. “We are planning to work with an organization called the Green Restaurant Association and hopefully some members of the Community Service House.”

“A lot of people have good ideas for specialty houses,” Whelsky says, but she warns not to expect many more to sprout up anytime soon.

“We need the academic departments to support these houses,” Whelsky adds. “They can’t sell themselves. Besides, if we had too many houses, the program wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be special.”

The deadline for specialty housing applications was March 4; applications received after that will be accepted only if specialty houses are not completely filled. Find out more about specialty residences here.

John Fichera can be reached at jfichera@bu.edu. Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

Find more perspectives on the ins and outs of living on campus.

A version of this story was originally published March 17, 2010.

1 Comments

One Comment on Greek Myths, Italian Scrabble, and Green Dinners

  • Jdrazzle on 03.08.2011 at 12:15 pm

    It is unfortunate that the HER house was not mentioned in this article. As the only all-female cooperative house on campus, I would say its pretty special.

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