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Dorm Life Gave Sense Of Belonging

 

Susan Schwab Donovan '66

 

In the fall of 1962, freshman girls at Cornell didn’t have manynbsp hangouts. We were too young for the bars, no one had cars, and we were locked up at 9:15. For us, by default as much as by choice, our hangout was the dorm.

We started college during the waning days of in loco parentis, the policy that placed the college in the role of substitute parents. Girls had dress codes, strictly enforced hours, house mothers, nightly bed checks, single-sex dorms, and required Chapel. Shocking as this lifestyle may sound to today’s liberated college women, we accepted the rules unquestioningly. It was just the way things were, and for most of us, Cornell gave us more freedom than we had ever had.

The dorm was where we made our closest personal connections, where we ate all our meals, where we studied and played and entertained our boyfriends. Third-floor-turn-left-at-the-stairs was my first Cornell family. Struggling together through Dr. Pray’s biology exams and Dr. Kollman’s history papers bonded us as fellow survivors. College was hard work, and we found plenty of ways to relieve the stress. We became quite adept at “roping” doorknobs and stuffing rooms with newspapers. Food was important; the smell of fresh popcorn still transports me immediately to Pfeiffer Hall. One of our favorite rituals was gathering after dinner to sing. We’d jam into somebody’s room and belt out “If I Had a Hammer” and “The Drunken Sailor,” accompanied by ukuleles.

Like sisters, we shared our belongings—typewriters, care packages, and clothes. My green corduroy suit spent more time on Ruth Ann than on me (and it looked better on her!). We also shared our secrets and our dreams in conversations about what we wanted in life, and we did our best to educate each other by sharing our scant knowledge of sex.

Ruth Keefe Miller '66, Ellie Rowlson Hall '66, Susan Schwab Donovan '66, and Nancy Wright '66 (from left) toast dorm life, a time when they grew from girls to women.

Our own little corridors and rooms were not the only gathering places in Pfeiffer. At the top of the stairs on second and third were the ironing boards and the telephone for the floor. Somebody was always there, ironing either her own white cotton blouses, or (gasp!) her boyfriend’s button-down shirts, or shirts of some guy who was paying for the service. And somebody was always sprawled on the floor tying up the phone, while someone else was waiting for a turn.

The first floor had itsown daily life cycle. The lounge was usually empty in the morning, except for a board-job worker running a vacuum. Toward noon, the noise level picked up as the lunch line formed and girls hovered around the desk to pick up mail. Afternoons were quiet again with a few girls studying or dozing. The day crescendoed around dusk, when the lounge was opened to boys for a short time before and after dinner. The love seats filled with couples discreetly making out with “four feet” very properly “on the floor.” (Try it—it’s not easy ... or comfortable!) By 8 p.m. the boys were out, the lounge doors were closed, and the bathrobe-and- curlers crowd took over the lounge for study, typewriters whacking away in the back room. Close to 9:15, the kissing couples were back, this time lingering outside the front door, in the cramped entryway, or on the darkened stairway down to the dining hall. The lights would flick a warning one minute before closing, the boys would tear themselves away, and Pfeiffer Hall would become its female self again. On special nights, everyone would be buzzed to the lounge for a candle ceremony. We’d stand in a circle in the darkened room, singing sweetly as the candle was passed around the circle once, then twice, when the girl who had been pinned blew it out—or three times around for an engagement. Later, a colony of procrastinators would gather in the lounge, pulling an all-nighter to study for an exam or to finish (or start) a paper due the next day. The mood generally started congenial enough, but by the wee hours, the smoky air was thick with tension. As day broke, the lounge ghosts evaporated, and the vacuum’s hum chased away the night.

The fall of 1965 found us as senior women in Rood House, and another community formed. More precisely, it re-formed. We had spent the two intervening years going separate ways, joining different social groups, finding a major, and studying abroad. By senior year, we were different people. We had accepted leadership roles on campus, and we were more serious about our studies. Marguerite had been to Montgomery, Ala., Joan had lived in Germany, and Edie, Ruth, and I had sampled Europe. We were doing our student teaching, and several of us were planning weddings. We were testing our fledgling wings, preparing for the real world where we would make our lives. Rood House completed our circle, reuniting us as women, not girls, and giving us a chance to rediscover each other on more mature territory.

I work now in a big university. My women students live in large co-ed residence halls, and they eagerly anticipate moving to apartments as upper-class students. They think my college experience was quaint and archaic. But I can’t help thinking that, in spite of their many freedoms, they’re missing something. I wish I could give them the sense of place and belonging we had from living in Pfeiffer, Bowman, and Rood. We didn’t know about the feminist movement, but we did know about living in a community of strong, bright women who were there for each other. From the vantage point of middle age, I can see what we were preparing for, and I’ve known the power of communities of women to support each other through life’s joys and disappointments. Cornell gave us four years of good practice.

Susan Schwab Donovan '66 goes to bed every night at 9:15 because she has to get up every morning to be the director of the Learning Development Center at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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