MECCA dinner
Devon Yee '18 (far right) and her housemates at a MECCA house dinner.

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Photography by Matt Banderas ’04

Devon Yee '18 traces her enthusiasm for residence life back to her experience as a first year in North Hall.

"There were all types of funny shenanigans, like a pumpkin pie fight outside, blanket forts, scary ghost stories, and just all the wonderful interactions that come with living with a group of proudly weird people," she said. "I never really experienced homesickness in part, I think, because I lived in such a wonderful community at Whitman."

Yee, an economics and mathematics major and religion minor, is the resident assistant of MECCA (Multi-Ethnic Center for Cultural Awareness), one of 11 interest houses at Whitman. Situated in a picturesque neighborhood bordering campus, these homes offer students the opportunity to live family-style in groups of four to 10, as opposed to rooming in more traditional residence halls. Founded in the 1970s, Whitman's Interest House Community (IHC) was the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.

"Living in the IHC can form a really tight-knit community," Yee said. "We have family dinners four times a week, we put on a program for all of campus once every month, we have house hangouts at least once every two weeks and we all have house chores."

In addition to MECCA, the IHC encompasses the Fine Arts House, Writing House, Community Service Co-op, Global Awareness House, Asian Studies House, La Maison Française, La Casa Hispana, Das Deutsche Haus, Tekisuijuku (Japanese Studies House) and Environmental Studies House, nicknamed the Outhouse.

"Students feel a sense of ownership in these houses because of the time and energy they invest in actually creating a home," said Associate Dean of Students Nancy Tavelli, director of residence life and housing. "I was with a group of alumni recently, and when asked what their most enduring memory was of Whitman I was surprised and pleased by how many said living in an interest house."

More than 20 percent of students reside in an interest house at some point during their Whitman career. Since each house is centered on a particular theme, they often serve as social hubs for campus activities, clubs and academic departments: Language-themed houses have live-in native speakers and host study abroad workshops. The Outhouse handles recycling. And the annual IHC block party is among the most eagerly anticipated fall semester events.

"Another thing about living in an interest house is that the direction of the house in terms of programming and what we want to achieve is very much dictated by the people who live there," said Yee. "It's a wonderful way to get more involved on campus."

She and her sophomore residents have orchestrated a number of projects, including the 1,000 Paper Crane Challenge, which sends origami to the Children's Peace Monument in Hiroshima.

"We have also been working on bringing Dark Matter, a Southeast Asian, non-binary slam poetry duo to campus," Yee said. "Another program we put on was "chalk the walks" in partnership with Thrive, the mental health advocacy group on campus. We wrote encouraging messages like ‘it's okay to not be okay' and ‘your mental health is just as important as your physical health' in chalk on the sidewalks around Ankeny and on the steps of the library."

Yee's leadership of MECCA has helped her come full circle: "I decided to become an RA because I really value community, and I wanted to be able to give back to the Whitman community that has been so supportive of me."