Mary Lyon’s vision prevails: Campus remains residential

One of Mount Holyoke’s non-resident hall apartments, located on 17 Morgan Street.  Photo by Anna Braman ’21

One of Mount Holyoke’s non-resident hall apartments, located on 17 Morgan Street.

Photo by Anna Braman ’21


In an 1836 fundraising letter, Mary Lyon laid out her intention for an all-residential female seminary, one of the first of its kind. “Every scholar is to board in the establishment,” Lyon wrote. “This will give great unity to the plans of the institution, and great regularity to the system, and will greatly facilitate the improvement of those for whom it was designed.”

When the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opened its doors the following year, Mary Lyon stayed true to her promise and provided housing for all incoming students. Approximately 80 students, along with all faculty, lived in one building in a system called “Family Arrangements.” Along with fostering a sense of community, this system ensured punctual attendance to classes and extracurricular activities.

182 years later, Mount Holyoke College stands as one of the oldest historical institutions of higher learning for women in the U.S. and has an enrollment of 2,208 students for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the College’s Office of Institutional Research. Though plenty has changed, Mount Holyoke still prides itself on being a residential community.

Rachel Alldis, the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life, has worked in Residential Life at five different institutions of higher education, but considers the close-knit community of Mount Holyoke to be unique. “It’s a significant difference from schools I’ve worked at that aren’t residential colleges,” Alldis said. “We all live together, we’re here to support one another, to fight for one another, and to each find our own home within our MoHome.”

Alldis believes that the residential experience teaches students important social skills. “We are learning how to live in community with one another, what it means to be a good neighbor, skills like positive confrontation, which will carry on beyond your time here.”

Aside from its philosophical mission, Mount Holyoke’s residential policy serves a practical purpose. Since the College’s inception, the income from the student board was used to defray the costs of operation. The incoming class of 1837 paid sixteen dollars a term for “board, exclusive of fuel and lights,” according to the First Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Members of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. As tuition was only four dollars, board brought in a significant portion of the Seminary’s income. “There is still the initial intent of [needing] people to live on campus and pay for campus housing,” said Alldis. “This is a residential college so they base their budget on all accepted students living on campus for the duration of their time here.”

Although most students will spend their undergraduate years in one of the College’s 18 residence halls, a few students are exempt from the on-campus housing requirement: commuter students and Frances Perkins Scholars do not have to live on campus at any point. Additionally, students may apply to live off campus through Accessibility Services if they can demonstrate medical need.

For other undergraduates, there is only one avenue for those who wish to live off campus: the off-campus housing application, available to rising juniors and seniors.

“About 20 students are approved to live off campus each year,” said Alldis. While this number seems low, Alldis claims that ResLife rarely receives more than 20 applications. “We sometimes don’t get anywhere near the number of application spaces that we have,” she said. “In my time here, we have not exceeded the number or needed to say ‘no’ to a lot of people.”

While Alldis hopes this number remains low because students enjoy living on campus, she suspects it has more to do with the lack of alternative housing available. “There’s not a plethora of housing options in South Hadley,” she said.

Still, off-campus living has its own benefits. Martha Kent ’21 would like to apply to live off campus in her junior year for “financial reasons [...] it’s likely less expensive to live in off-campus housing.” Kent also believes that living off campus could equip students with worthwhile skills. “How to cook, maintain a space, what the actual cost of living means, these are all things we will have to know after we graduate,” said Kent.

Wenny Shen ’19 has lived off campus since her junior year. Shen cited financial concerns as the main reason why she applied to live off campus. “I’m not receiving any financial aid as an international student,” Shen said. “If I live off campus, I can save a lot of money. I stated that explicitly [in my application].”

Like Kent and Shen, most students who apply to live off campus do so for economic reasons. “Many are economical, the rest are logistical,” said Alldis. “If we ever got to a point where there were more people applying than we could approve, we would give preference to applications with economic and logistical concerns.”

Although Shen thinks that living off campus could be an ideal option for many, she cautions students to consider what it means to truly live on your own. When Shen faced a serious roommate conflict, she realized she didn’t have the infrastructure of the College to support her.

“Because it’s off campus, it’s out of the jurisdiction of Campus Police,” she said. Shen instead had to go through South Hadley police to get a temporary restraining order against her roommate.

Lt. Josh Dufresne of Campus Police confirmed Shen’s statement. “Our authority extends to any property of the College. We would assist students with the procedure, but we’re obligated to refer them to their jurisdiction’s precinct,” said Dufresne.

Shen doesn’t think her story should scare students away from living off campus. “The probability of something like that happening is very low,” she said. More importantly, Shen feels that students should be realistic about what they can gain from living off-campus. Before moving out, Shen broke down her weekly expenses with her roommate, including rent, groceries and transportation. “But after I had been living off campus for awhile, I found cooking and doing the dishes very time-consuming,” she added.

Living off campus, Shen did not buy Mount Holyoke’s meal plan, but she still ends up eating at the Dining Commons nearly once a day, negating some of her anticipated savings. “The amount of money I’m saving is actually lower than I anticipated,” she said.

Shen feels that off-campus living is just one of many options for students. “Each student needs to decide if it is right for them on their own,” said Shen.

The off-campus housing application for the academic year 2019-2010 will open in February. It can be accessed on the Mount Holyoke College website.