Luck of the Draw

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Everyone was sweating on May 19. It was 85 degrees on campus. Shirtless Sigma Chis were setting up another one of their shindigs, and the palm fronds they’d arched along their front pathway at 11 a.m. were wilting within the hour. On the Coffee House patio, clusters of iced-coffee drinkers clung to the shade.

Undergraduates had another reason to sweat: May 19 was Day One of Run Weekend in the housing office. Run Weekend marks the last step of the Draw, the annual process that determines where the next fall’s upperclassmen—members of housed fraternities and sororities excepted—will live. (Freshmen are simply assigned their rooms.) It’s about scoring a sweet pad, but it’s also about finding yourself: figuring out who your friends are and how the place you’ll call home reflects you. Whether you’re a vegetarian (Synergy), a partier (Lambda Nu), a performing artist (Kimball), a community servicer (Lantana), lucky (Robert Moore South, officially known as “Bob”) or unlucky (Wilbur Hall).

Part lottery, part strategy, the Draw is as central to the Stanford experience as a distaste for Cal. And it elicits nearly as much hissing.

“It goes without saying that May is stressful for all freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and largely for one reason,” blasted an editorial in the Stanford Daily earlier that week. “Draw.”

Out on Wilbur Field at the annual Rinc-a-Delt bash that sizzling day last May, six Rinconada freshmen—Sundeep Bhat, Albert Chen, Nic Kanaan, Stephen Ku, Achyut Phadke and Chris Wallis—were in the home stretch of their first Draw cycle. They’d followed the requisite steps to a T. Formed a Draw group. Soldiered their way through the “red packet,” the University-issued guide to the Draw (which, according to their resident assistant, Dan Hsia, is as user-friendly as the Constitution). Registered their group on Axess, the online student information network (code name: Toledo, Sundeep’s hometown). Been assigned a random lottery number (withheld here for the sake of suspense). Entered their eight housing choices into the system.

As this group—let’s call them the Toledo Six—licked melting snow cones off their fingers and stuffed limp slices of pizza down the hatch, their fate was being run through a fleet of computers in the housing assignment office on the third floor of Old Union. Ceiling fans sliced the heavy air above. Employees squinted at screens, entering codes and more codes. The printer occasionally whined forth a report. The printer occasionally jammed. “Has anyone seen The Mummy II?” someone wanted to know.

The six-member housing assignment team would work past midnight that night and the next as the custom Draw software ran its complex algorithm, placing groups of up to eight students into the best available choices on their Draw cards. The lower the Draw number, the better a group’s chances.

It would take less than 15 minutes for the program to slot 3,903 students into 58 houses. It would take hours more for the housing assignment team to analyze the results, making sure that gender is balanced in every dorm and the correct number of spaces have been reserved for incoming freshmen and residence staff. Problems are identified, recoded and transmitted to the program, which goes back to its number crunching.

“We might start to get a little punchy later in the day,” said Todd Benson, director of housing assignment services, whose upper lip sprouted small beads of sweat.

From a peg on the back of his office door hung a leather hat, the kind of hat one would wear on a safari or into the Australian outback. Perhaps Benson, MA ’87, PhD ’94, had chosen it especially for this heated day of the Draw, which is itself an adventure—not life-endangering, but potentially life-changing, with the serendipity of housing assignments resulting in friendships, romances, maybe even multimillion-dollar business ventures—?

“No, that’s just my hat,” said Benson.

Somewhere in the row of computers behind him, the contours of the Toledo Six’s sophomore year were taking shape. How much space they’d have. How much privacy. How many computers in their computer cluster. Who would feed them. How far they’d have to bike to class. Whether they’d have a pool table, ping-pong table or foosball table.

In just seven days, they’d know.

Whatever. It’s only a dorm room, isn’t it?

Consider this: the day after the Daily ran the aforementioned editorial, an alumna sent in a letter to the editor bemoaning her “terrible Draw number” for sophomore year. An alumna from the Class of 1973.

Back in those days, students were guaranteed only three years of housing. But since the opening of the three Manzanita Park dorms (Kimball, Lantana and Castaño) in the early 1990s, the University has offered housing to all undergrads who want it—even leasing and subletting apartments in a nearby Menlo Park complex to meet recent high demand.

Today, the Draw answers the question of where you will get housing instead of whether. Students are allotted two years of “preferred” status (receiving a Draw number between 1 and 2,000) and one unpreferred year (drawing a number between 2,001 and 3,000). Stanford provides preferred years, the red packet explains, because “students deserve a fair chance to live somewhere nice on campus.” Which suggests that some places are nicer than others. Indeed, the range of housing options is wide—distressingly wide, students argue. Draw 50, and you could end up in your own lakefront room in Lambda Nu (see map, page 77). Draw 2,150, and you could end up, as that 1973 alumna did, in an extra-cozy one-room double in what she called “good old Wilbur.”

“Our housing stock is not yet and may not ever be fully equal in terms of perceived quality,” says Keith Guy, former associate vice provost of residential and dining enterprises. Guy, who retired at the end of the summer, has overseen Stanford’s $260 million Capital Improvement Program, which began in 1992. When it is completed in 2008, the project will have renovated every residence, in addition to constructing a few new ones. The aim is to encourage students to choose housing for its experience instead of its aesthetics.

That idea is at the very core of the University’s commitment to residential education. Housing, goes the Stanford philosophy, is ideally more than a spot to sleep and eat—it’s a place to learn and to build community. Almost one-third of Stanford’s stock falls into the category of theme and focus houses, such as Casa Italiana, Kimball (performing arts) and Ujamaa (African-American). These options add another wrinkle to Draw procedure. A student who demonstrates an interest in a theme or focus can be awarded a priority for the corresponding residence. Each house sets its own prerequisites. Kimball, for example, requires prospective residents to draft proposals for programs they might run in the dorm—say, a musical exchange in which students swap instruments and learn to play them on the spot. Fewer than half of its 150 applicants were granted priority for the upcoming year.

In academic theme houses, all rooms can be filled with priority residents. In focus houses and ethnic theme houses, one-fourth to one-half can. Although priority doesn’t guarantee placement in a particular house, it generally enables students who draw comparatively poorly to get into houses before students who draw better. For example, a group of four women with Draw number 2,237 and a priority got into Kimball this year. A group of four women with number 1,192 and no priority would not have.

The University is always tinkering with the housing system to make sure it meets its aims—replacing an American Studies theme with one in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, for example. In 1999, the University made a dramatic change in Draw procedure: assigning students their numbers before they rank their housing preferences. That reversal enables students to fill out their Draw cards more strategically. “It manages expectations a little better,” says Guy.

Definitely. But it hasn’t done much to manage bewilderment. “Too confusing” is one of the many barbs that students shoot the Draw’s way (not to mention “unfair,” “inconsistent,” even “sucky”). And confusion is not a state of mind that’s comfortable for Stanford students. They’re pretty used to nailing down concepts.

“People always say, ‘Oh, God, it’s so complicated,’” says Benson, who has a demeanor that can fairly be described as chipper. “But it’s much simpler than they think.” He likens the Draw to card tournaments (where priorities are like trumps) and rounds of musical chairs (where groups are like players). In yet another analogy, he suggests picturing the computer program as a bouncer at the door of these friendly competitions.

But it gets a little complicated.

Suffice it to say that no other university plays games quite the way Stanford does. After freshman year, Harvard students are randomly assigned to one of 12 houses, where they usually stay until they graduate. Berkeley simply offers little housing. Of its 22,000 undergrads, 17,000 live off campus. Priority goes to Regents scholars, athletes, disabled students and those who have never lived in university housing.

The Stanford Draw might be grounded in a sort of empathetic equity: you tell us where you want to live and we’ll do our best to put you there. This empathy has a cost: $350,000 per year, by Benson’s estimate. But in the end, it comes down to numbers of a different sort. Random numbers. Some discouraging numbers, too, which can overshadow all else. One in eight applicants gets into Stanford. One in 75 students will have the chance to live in Bob in any given year.

And even if you land that coveted spot in Bob, you could end up in one of its two one-room triples. At the in-house Draws, which are independently run by each house later in the spring, students vie for the best rooms, praying for one of the 327 hallowed singles available campuswide. Seniors and returning residents tend to get top dibs.

“Any time you have a situation with an element of chance that you can’t control,” says Benson, “it’s going to be frustrating for someone.” That’s especially true for Stanford students, one or two of whom might have traces of Type A in their blood.

And it’s even truer for the inhabitants of an all-frosh dorm. During spring quarter, the Draw approaches like an asteroid, one great big reality check headed their way. That woo-hoo! dorm unity fostered all year at parties and ski trips and kooky ice cream troughs is about to be blown apart.

Two weeks before the deadline for forming Draw groups last May, two of Rinconada’s RAs—seniors Tress Goodwin and Dan Hsia—ran a Q&A session on the Draw to explain, demystify, drill in deadlines, re-explain. The tone was tense. The RAs, whose traditional roles are divided between cheerleading and coddling, were all business.

“Where would you live, Tress?”

“I’d worry about getting a Draw number first,” says Goodwin.

“How well did Bob draw last year?”

“Read the red packet,” says Hsia.

“The red packet sucks.”

One woman, nervously teething a straw, spins metaphors that are a far cry from Benson’s fun-and-games take on things. (“It’s like applying to college. . . . It’s like the draft.”) Goodwin and Hsia dish up cautionary tales of people who “screwed themselves” in Draws past. Someone who’d entered Naranja instead of the much more appealing Narnia and wasted their primo Draw number. One group that drew 120 and got cocky; they’d only listed Bob on their Draw cards and wound up in Mirrielees when Bob’s cutoff ended up being 110. Everyone laughs at Goodwin’s bad luck: she drew 1,453 her freshman year and was banished to the all-women’s Row house, Roth, which she dubbed the Library of Hate and Anger. “I’m getting the theme that overconfidence is deadly,” says one of her frosh. “Be scared,” Goodwin admonishes. “Be very scared.”

The Toledo Six aren’t scared. They know who they are. A strategic six-pack, six being the most flexible Draw group size—easy to split into double or triple rooms as the situation necessitates. Since early March, they have been a cohesive unit with no forbearance for cling-ons or mutineers.

“Steadfast,” says Nic, who is the sole member to have felt occasional outside lures. He considered drawing with his girlfriend until she pledged Pi Beta Phi. He’s also rushing a fraternity, though he claims to be in it for the free “refreshments.”

The Toledo Six have a convincing advantage over other groups. Namely, a visionary. That’s Achyut, a.k.a. Draw Master. The Draw has been on Achyut’s mind for precisely 365 days, the year that has elapsed since he first came across a mention of the process in the Stanford Daily when he visited campus as a high school senior.

“After getting used to living here, I thought back . . . I checked out the Draw website. I was wondering what size Draw group we’d want. Well, I’d want,” he says, trailing off slightly. “It’s embarrassing, actually.”

He settled on a group of six, and by mid-October, the Worcester, Mass., native with an eccentric streak (he admits to vacuuming as pastime) was in informal recruiting mode.

Target No. 1: Sundeep, who’d attended a Sanskriti Indian student meeting with him first quarter. Sundeep is a graphics editor at the Daily and has a long, easy stride that hints at his calm nature. He also lives on the third floor of Rinconada, which opened up new vistas for first-floor dweller Achyut.

There’s Nic, a rock climber and skier from Visalia, Calif., who took six classes with Sundeep and is in possession of an impressive collection of cologne. His favorite is something called Business Man.

Two doors down: Chris, a Sacramento native with the lanky build of a skateboarder and Smurf-blue hair. Chris says his room is usually in “hellish” condition. He is sometimes “completely nocturnal.” As far as Draw procedures go, he concedes he’s “pretty clueless.”

At the end of the hall: Albert, a 17-year-old from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who skipped two grades and is Rinconada’s secretary; and across from him, Stephen, a San Franciscan with a low-key, self-deprecating sense of humor. (“I’m a slow reader,” he admits. “I just think to myself, ‘I’m getting this more than the people who are reading fast.’”)

None of the six are roommates (yet). None have major gripes with their current roommates, either. Except for Achyut, their rooms occupy one end of the third floor. They’ve been a strong dorm presence, say their ras. They sang Blind Melon and Blink 182 covers at a recent party. At another, they ruled the karaoke machine. They play cricket and soccer in the hallway. They contemplated founding a secret society inspired by the cheesy film thriller The Skulls. They’re frequent customers of a video game called Counter-Strike (“first-person shooter,” they say by way of explanation).

“The people I’m drawing with,” says Stephen, “obviously I think are highly cool.”

Indeed, all is cool with the Toledo Six. Highly cool. But the rest of Rinconada is not without woes. One woman, rejected at the last minute from a four-person Draw group, will have to draw alone. Two guys who considered Sundeep a potential Drawmate weren’t invited aboard the Toledo Six.

“I asked my friend Sundeep what he was going to do, and he said he was going with a six-person draw,” says one. “So that sort of shuts the both of us out.”

Benson has more painful tales to tell, like that of the group of women who didn’t inform one of their Drawmates they had all agreed to exclude her by quietly selecting different houses. Because the University keeps individual students’ choices confidential, Benson’s office can only talk to such group members “in general terms,” he says. “We have to tell them, ‘Well, you have to work this out amongst yourselves.’”

The Toledo Six have set their sights on Toyon Hall, a 200-person dorm that turned all-sophomore in 1999 and was renovated in 2000. They want the single-class unity, a continuation of the dorm spirit they’ve had in Rinconada.

They’re nodding at this decision at a meeting in late April. Everyone is sitting in Nic’s room, except for Achyut, who is standing, quietly commanding attention like a courtroom lawyer. They defer specifics to him.

“A good number that will get us into Toyon is 650, maybe 700,” he says, casually resting his elbow against the lofted bed. “The odds of that are maybe 1 in 3. Not horrible.”

So what is the most horrible thing that could happen?

“We could die,” says Nic.

“We could die of anxiety,” Chris says, even more ironically.

Beginning in the late 1940sthe first housing draws were run exclusively for women, most of whom were required to live on campus (freshman men lived in Encina; upperclassmen lived in fraternities and eating clubs or off campus). Housed sororities had been banned in 1944 because of the distress they caused some women who weren’t offered bids. Women were assigned to Roble or Lagunita, and then to some of the all-women’s houses on the Row, such as Storey and Stillman. One hundred were allowed to live off campus. The Draw determined which ones.

In the late 1960s, Stanford’s housing landscape began to change. The first focus houses, which were coed, were introduced. More students began going overseas. Silicon Valley experienced its first high-tech boom, which led, predictably, to a housing crunch in Palo Alto. Until the mid-’70s, downtown apartment complexes offered students dirt-cheap rent, including a gratis first month and summer storage.

“I know, hard to believe,” says Sally Mahoney, MS ’93, who was associate dean of residential education at the time and recently retired as president of Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.

These forces began to act on the housing system, she says, and the all-student Draw was born in 1969. In the years since, it has gotten more and more complex. Priority for returning residents was added in the early 1970s—and phased out in the late ’80s. Focus houses with limited priority spots were first included in 1987. And in 1999, the University decided to allow Draw groups more flexibility. Students can decide whether it’s worth it to split up, for example, if some can get into their first-choice house and the rest into their second. Group members can also make the same initial, say, four selections but vary the remaining four.

Perhaps the most mourned change to the Draw concerns its loss of meaning as a verb. Until 1995, students retrieved numbers by physically drawing a slip of paper from a box. There were annual themes, such as the year all of the numbers were tucked into fortune cookies. It was televised and broadcast on kzsu. But efficiency has supplanted creativity, and Draw numbers are now generated and assigned by computer, printed on long sheets of white paper and taped to the glass doors of residence halls.

At the Wilbur Hall office on May 9, five of the Toledo Six are scanning the 12-point font. The sole absentee is Stephen, who is shackled to Chem Lab (no excuses necessary).

Albert is wearing his lucky jade Buddha necklace, which might be superfluous. Everyone claims to have fortune pumping in his veins. That is, everyone but Sundeep, who recently experienced three bike accidents in three days.

The Toledo Six know some things. The number 1999 is already out. Rumor has it someone in Otero charitably nabbed that. Number 2 is gone, too. That’s been squirreled away by a student from Sundeep’s writing class. But 1998 is still out there, not to mention 1997, 1996 . . .

“Why think about bad things?” Achyut wonders.

Albert finds the number first. “693,” he says in a quiet voice.



They’re excited in a tempered kind of way. Nic and Albert exchange a gentle low-five.

“We didn’t get completely shafted,” says Chris. “To tell you the truth, I still don’t know what’s going on.”

Achyut looks relieved. “I was fixated on the number 1,460.”

“Is that your SAT score?” asks Albert.

“No,” he says, very quickly.

The next night, they log on to Axess to enter their choices. Toyon on top, then a couple of Row houses, two Lagunita dorms, Kimball, Murray and Arroyo as a safety (good old Wilbur). They assume they’re as good as into Toyon. The cutoff Draw number for a group of six men last year was 1,176.

Anyway, there’s nothing they can do about it now. Their destiny is being determined by those computers on the third floor of Old Union.

Each year, the Draw’s sole certainty is its ability to inspire debate—and calls for reform. The most recent change bandied about is adding a “premier year,” in which students would draw from the 1 to 1,000 pool. The University decided against the proposal in 1999, but proponents—including last spring’s Daily editorial board—have been vocal enough that it will likely be reconsidered.

The most constant target of criticism is the Disability Draw, which is run separately from the regular Draw. The myth is floating that students can invent disabilities (“asthma” or “circulatory problems”) and get into a hot spot like Bob. The fact is, says Benson, each disabled student draws a number and is placed in a house with a cutoff on par with that number. The Disability Draw exists simply to ensure that students live in houses that can reasonably accommodate their disabilities.

Of course, there will always be something to complain about. A cruel twist of fate that, as illustrated by that 1973 alumna, is hard to let go of even 30 years later. An inkling of injustice. A bone to pick with the bureaucracy.

A sinking realization that when chance is involved, assumptions can be risky.

Such as the assumption that 693 is a good enough number to get six freshman guys into Toyon. The cutoff for male groups of six this year ends up being 690. The Toledo Six have some tough news to swallow: they were just one group away from their first choice. Instead, they are assigned to their fourth: Eucalipto, a four-class dorm in Lagunita Court.

“It’s crazy,” says their Draw Master. “I guess I was a little surprised.”

How about disappointed? Oh yes, they were disappointed. They took some of that out on Rinconada’s foosball table. Never have those little plastic soccer players kicked so powerfully.

Then the Toledo Six left.

They pushed open the front doors of Rinconada, crossed Wilbur Field, passed the Bookstore and Tresidder Union, headed west on Santa Teresa Street and then up the shaded front entrance of Lagunita Court. They found the cream-colored stucco of Eucalipto and walked the hallways of their new home. It was a lot quieter than Rinconada. Few doors were open. No one was sitting in the hallways, hanging around waiting for someone to talk to, it didn’t matter who. There was no foosball table.

They searched for things to ease the sting. The “big freaking doubles.” The good dinner (minus the raspberry tart that “tasted like baking soda”). The proximity to Lake Lagunita. Chris’s sense of humor.

“I didn’t even know that Eucalipto was one of our choices,” Chris remarked. “I can’t even remember the name of it half the time. I say Europe or something.”

The Six looked around a little more. Then they decided to go home, to Rinconada.

A few weeks later, the Toledo Six attended the in-house Draw for Eucalipto. It didn’t provide much in the way of reparations. There were 17 singles available. But the Six had no seniority, and pulled mediocre numbers. The group decided to grab a triple and a large double. One person would take a chance at a single— but risked ending up in a double with a random roommate. One of them needed to volunteer.

It’s been almost 18 months since Achyut first heard about the Draw and started pondering a Method. He planned. He strategized. He pulled together a highly cool Draw group. And he even scored a decent number. But come mid-September, the Draw Master will find himself living in a one-room Lagunita double with a stranger.

Marisa Milanese,’93, is a writer living in San Francisco.