It can be a little surreal to be the offspring of college masters, head resident fellows (HRFs) or resident associates (RAs) — the faculty and staff members and their families who live full time in houses or apartments on campus and provide guidance and intellectual support to the students in their residential colleges. Picture a few hundred extended family members living, dining, studying, sleeping and, yes, sometimes partying in close quarters. But those years of living on campus can provide a lifetime of memories. Masters, HRFs and RAs form a special bond with the many students who live at their college through the years, and their kids get to share that in their own way as they find their place in the Rice world.
Rice has always been a part of Franz Brotzen’s life. His father, the late Professor of Materials Science Franz Brotzen, first began working at Rice in 1954. Both Professor Brotzen and his wife, Frances, were active associates at Jones College before being asked to fill in as masters for a year while then-master and Professor Neil “Sandy” Havens was on sabbatical. The year was 1974, and the younger Franz Brotzen was leaving for college at Johns Hopkins University. After one semester, he decided that attending school was not in the cards for him at that time. “I was ready to be wild and irresponsible. I was a ne’er-do-well,” he said.
Franz returned to Houston and began working for a landscaping business. He lived in Jones House off and on during spring 1975. “My parents were very close to a number of the women at Jones [which was then female only]. In May, when school ended, the students had to move out of the college. So we had people crashing in the masters house. When I moved back into the house that month, my bedroom was taken. I ended up sleeping on a cot in my father’s office.” Soon after, their one-year mastership ended and the family went back to his parents’ house.
Then, in summer 1977, they became masters at Brown College, also a women’s college at that time. “We got notice that they were going to be masters again, this time full time at Brown instead of just the one year like at Jones. My dad said, ‘Your mother and I have talked about it and I think we’re going to move in. Are you up for this?’ I was like, sure, why not?” Franz had begun attending Rice in January of that year as a second-semester freshman and had been commuting to his classes, so living on campus was a welcome change.
Although he was assigned to Lovett College and developed many of his strongest friendships with students there, he never lived at that college, choosing instead to live at home, first at his parents’ house and then at the Brown Masters House. “Brown House is a nice house with two refrigerators that were always stocked because they were always having parties — part of the masters’ job description, I suppose.”
Franz lived at Brown until his graduation in 1980. “It was a great experience because people were always coming in. I remember waking up one morning when school was out for the summer. My parents were out of town and I heard voices downstairs. They were having some kind of event to welcome the new freshmen. There were all these lovely young women dressed up; it was some kind of tea or something. You’d wake up to wonderful surprises like that.”
If his parents hadn’t been masters, Franz probably would have continued to live at home rather than on campus, he admitted. As an older student who went back to school at age 22, he was a self-described “loner” during the one semester he commuted to classes from off campus.
“I never had an O-Week, so I never met people in that context,” he said. “As soon as we moved into Brown, I instantly knew 180 women. I also was getting to know other people across campus and worked for the Thresher. Living at Brown, to me at the time and in retrospect, was the best of all possible worlds.”
The first time his parents were chosen as masters, Benito Aranda-Comer was 10 years old. “The Baker College students brought my dad a big cookie cake, so I was pretty excited about that,” he said. “Rice is one big playground to a kid. I liked to host a lot of friends here. We’d go to basketball games and football games. For me, it felt like limitless opportunities to enjoy the unique situation I was in.”
But he was also nervous. “Being very young and understanding that my parents had this serious role in the college, I was happy to go to meals, eat and leave,” said Benito. “I was really aware that these students were so much older than me. I wondered what they thought of me but didn’t exactly have the communication skills to ask. But the Baker students showed me what it meant to be a nice young adult, especially to children.”
Being the son of college masters also has helped focus Benito’s own academic experience. “I want to be able to say that I tried my hardest. I remember looking at the Rice students and seeing them stressed out or upset or very happy — anywhere in the spectrum. The takeaway I got from that is that they tried. They showed up because they wanted to work and learn. They wanted to change and be a certain kind of person. It was admirable to me. I decided I wanted to be that person as well.”
After five years at Baker, Benito’s parents — José Aranda, the department chair of Spanish and Portuguese and associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese and of English, and Krista Comer, associate professor of English — were asked to stay on as masters for an additional year, as Baker was combined with the new Duncan College during fall 2009–spring 2010. In 2013, when they became masters at Brown College, Benito started his freshman year as a student at Baker and primarily resides there while classes are in session.
“I think some people at Brown are cognizant of the fact that I’m the Brown masters’ son, but some people don’t even know. I don’t want to be treated differently,” he said.
Whether at Baker or at Brown, Rice is home for Benito. There’s a level of comfort and confidence that he has developed during his years on campus. “When I got into Rice, I realized that my formation as a young adult happened here,” he said. “There have been a lot of things that have helped me grow as a person and made me the person I’ve become. A lot of it has to do with living at Baker and my parents being masters. What I’ve never taken for granted is that I feel like I can do anything at Rice. I can go to class, I can learn, I can meet people, I can foster my imagination and friendships with other students. It’s a special spot. All the people make it what it is.”
When Steve and Laura Cox were named as masters at Sid Richardson College, their sons were teenagers: Colin ’11 was 15 years old and Simon, who currently is a graduate student in religious studies at Rice, was 13.
“I think the greatest advice that we got from previous masters was to find special time for our kids. Because it would be very easy for them to become resentful,” said Laura. “By our second year, Colin was a student at Rice and lived at Wiess College. Thursday night was a free night for all four of us, so we made it pretty clear to the students at Sid that every Thursday night was our family dinner night. It was understood that we weren’t going to let anyone in unless it was an emergency. You have to make that time.”
Still, Laura and Steve, a professor of computational and applied mathematics, encouraged their sons to get to know the Sid residents. “It was organic, the friendships they made,” said Steve. “During our first year, one student in particular became a natural fit as an ‘older brother’ for Colin and Simon. It was great for them to have this sort of mentor.”
Colin and Simon also attended occasional events such as powderpuff games and played foosball with Steve on the seventh floor of Sid nearly every evening before dinner. Said Laura, “Colin and Simon thought it was the coolest upbringing. They loved it. We could walk to musical performances, lectures, art shows, students’ presentations in architecture. There was constant intellectual stimulation.”
Added Steve, “Living on campus definitely had an impact. They were inspired by what the students were accomplishing.”
Ashlyn Hutchinson Munson first moved onto the Rice campus with her parents and younger sister, Emma, when she was 13 years old. Although she already had spent time at Rice as the daughter of Chemistry Professor (and now Dean of Undergraduates) John Hutchinson, she was not entirely happy about the move “for teenage angst reasons that have long since been forgotten,” said Ashlyn. John and his wife, Paula, had been associates at Lovett College when she was very young, and she remembers attending college nights there. “I was promised that if I sat through dinner, I could dance on a table later.”
Living on campus brought a whole new range of experiences beyond dinner and dancing. She held a variety of jobs at Rice, including waiting tables at Cohen House and working as an administrative assistant in the dean of engineering’s office. In her first two years at Wiess, she participated in intramural softball and basketball teams and was in the Wiess musical “Hello, Hamlet!”
“My best memory is when my mom threw a surprise birthday party for my dad’s and my joint 40th and 15th birthdays,” she said. “She had Baker 13 [the semimonthly run of a number of shaving cream-covered students] run through the party. My 15-year-old friends had a variety of reactions. One says that she has yet to recover 19 years on.”
After living on a small, private university campus for so many years, Ashlyn chose a different route for her own education, attending the University of Colorado at Boulder for her undergraduate degree and the Colorado School of Mines for her Ph.D. in mathematics. “When it came time for me to apply to colleges, I was not nearly as stressed as my friends. College didn’t seem like too big of a deal. I always remembered the advice I heard my parents giving others. For example, my parents used to tell other parents whose freshmen would call home with a problem that they should tell their kids, ‘Wow, that is quite a problem. What are you going to do about it?’ That was a good reminder that I could take care of myself.”
Now an educator herself, Ashlyn is an assistant professor of mathematics at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. “I always wanted to be a professor, so I assume living on campus had at least some influence. Given that I work on a college campus that is similar in size to Rice, I have very specific views on how a university should be run and expectations of the students.”
And her Rice connections continue today. A former
Wiess student is her “unofficially adopted brother” and the godfather of her son. She maintains friendships with a number of other students whom she sees on visits back to Houston. Facebook also has made keeping in touch with a variety of alumni easier. Ashlyn even had a unique visitor while she was living in Boulder: “A Rice student figured out where I worked and brought his parents along to meet me. I’d never even met him before, but he was pretty excited to say hello and ‘Team Wiess!’”
Said Ashlyn, “I’m happy my parents moved us to Wiess. I have a collection of childhood stories that almost nobody else does. And there are 2,000-plus alums out there who love my parents almost as much as I do.”
Tyler Stoddard Smith remembers his years living at Hanszen College as a “wonderland.” In the eyes of an 8-year-old, it must have seemed that way. Even finding out that they were going to live on campus was like a fairytale. “I liked that we were going to be ‘masters.’ It had an imperial ring to it,” he said. “I considered myself a young but vital co-master, if only in name.”
Tyler was already quite familiar with the Rice campus before moving in. His parents were associates at one of the colleges, and when he was a toddler, his father, Richard Smith, the George and Nancy Rupp Professor of Humanities and a professor of history, would sometimes teach his class with Tyler sitting on his shoulders.
After the young Smith became a campus resident, his fun began in earnest. “As masters, my parents always had a ton of ice cream in the refrigerator. They needed to be prepared for events such as TGs [as in TGIFs, which took place on Fridays] and O-Week dinners, so the fridge was stocked. Thanks to my little fat friends and I, Hanszen probably had the most deficient ice cream supply of any of the colleges. Being at the college was so much fun that most of my friends just lived with us part time.”
The students at Hanszen were “amazing” with a young child in their midst, according to Tyler. “For them, I must have been a tremendous nuisance. I have memories of barging into student’s rooms on occasion, like an 8-year-old Kramer. I was always carrying a plastic M-16 I got for Christmas. I wandered around the quad, rolled around in mud and hid behind trees to camouflage myself. Then I’d make a machine gun noise and pretend to exterminate groups of students hanging out in front of the commons, making out on the swing, etc. Everybody pretended to die on command, and in really creative ways. I’m not a violent person, but this all seemed very normal at the time, even encouraged.”
Some of his experiences at Hanszen could even be considered surreal. How many people can claim Allen Ginsberg as a past houseguest? But in 1983, that’s exactly who stayed in the masters house for a few days. Professor Smith had invited Ginsberg to give a poetry reading in the Hanszen College Commons. Ginsberg and Tyler spent time playing video games and bonded over a mutual love of the band The Clash. Before leaving town, Ginsberg attempted to teach yoga and meditation to Richard and Tyler. Ginsberg took the experience very seriously, but the Smith men began to dissolve in hysterical laughter before they could even assume the correct meditative posture, which didn’t go over well with the Beat poet.
When the time came for Tyler to go to college, he chose to attend Rice and earned a B.A. in Spanish. “Spending almost 10 years of my life on the Rice campus has taught me that you never know what’s going to come roaring out of the sky: water balloons, fruit, homemade rockets, beer, guinea pigs, etc. If Rice students can find a way to launch something, they’ll launch it.” Unique lesson learned.