Merritt Roe Smith, for example, who shares housemaster duties at Burton-Conner with his wife, Bronwyn Mellquist, walks the dorm floors at 1 a.m. on the weekends, hoping to strike up conversations with students. On one of these late-night strolls, he comforted a student concerned about a loud roommate by saying, “Call me anytime if the problem comes up again and I’ll come over.” The student proceeded to call every two hours throughout the night–not to report that anything had happened, but to ask if it was okay to call if something did. “He just needed the reassurance that I was there to help if he needed me,” says Smith.
Students appreciate these open-door policies, especially when they feel vulnerable. Dawn Colquitt Anderson and her husband, Larry Anderson, an associate professor of physical education and head coach of men’s basketball, have been housemasters at Tang Hall since 1999. During last year’s flu season, a student came to Dawn feeling sick, worried about H1N1; she took his temperature and felt his head. “I just felt so good being able to do it for him, and he felt so good, too, because he was missing his parents and he needed that,” she says. “They all need someone, even if they don’t know it.”
Being a shoulder to cry on, too, is part of the job. Mellquist remembers when an upperclassman came to the apartment to discuss a first-year student whose friend back home had died suddenly. Smith and Mellquist offered to help connect the student with a counselor. The upperclassman shook his head, looked at Mellquist, and said, “I think she just needs a mother.”
Professors who become housemasters add more work to an already demanding professional life. Smith says some of his colleagues think he is “totally nuts.” But he delights in witnessing the students’ transformation during their four years at MIT. “It lets you see a different side of students,” he says. “I’ve become a better teacher because of it. I know how the students prioritize their time and how they think about things.”
Robert Randolph, chaplain to the Institute and housemaster of Bexley Hall, gets a similar reaction when he tells people where he and his wife, Jan, live. “The average person on the street regards adolescents as a necessary evil,” he says. “Anyone who would choose to give up their ‘freedom’ to interact with [college students] is viewed as mentally deficient. But frankly, I think it is a wonderful way to stay younger.” Larry Anderson agrees. “The people we live with are mature, they’re talented, they’re going places,” he says. “And I get energy from that.”
“Friending” residents on Facebook, exchanging music through iTunes, and hosting a barbecue complete with a cotton candy machine are just a few of the ways housemasters stay young. Smith and Mellquist take Burton-Conner students on a dinner-dance cruise every year–and each year, the students beg them to join in the dancing. Smith challenges the students to a dance-off, trading the latest club music for his generation’s rock. “I automatically declare myself the winner–even though last year one student was a member of the MIT Ballroom Dance Team,” he says, laughing.