Lone male student rooms at Bryn Mawr

At many colleges, coed living is a ho-hum fact of life, but James Merriam, a Haverford sophomore, is opening doors at Bryn Mawr as the only male student who has roomed at the women's school in the last 10 years.
At many colleges, coed living is a ho-hum fact of life, but James Merriam, a Haverford sophomore, is opening doors at Bryn Mawr as the only male student who has roomed at the women's school in the last 10 years.
Posted: February 02, 2009

Whether eating in the dining hall, strolling across campus, chilling in his dorm room, or rehearsing for a musical, James Merriam is, no doubt about it, an oddity at Bryn Mawr College - and not because of his long, persimmon-hued hair.

Merriam, 19, known around Bryn Mawr College as "Ginger Jesus" for his flowing locks and scraggly beard, possesses something that no other student living on campus has: a Y chromosome.

Since September, he has been the only young man rooming at the women's school, a 6-foot, 3-inch sluice for testosterone amid the fluctuating hormones of 1,300 females.

Not that Merriam is a player, but he briefly dated a "Bryn Mawrter" in the fall. He's a slim, soft-spoken, liberal-leaning young man from Vermont who arrived at Haverford College as a freshman last school year.

"I was disappointed," he said.

Not only did he have serious roommate problems, he found that the liberal Quaker campus wasn't quite as liberal as he had hoped. He also found the food and facilities to be less than stellar. Since students at the two colleges can enroll in classes and activities at the other school, Merriam began spending more time at Bryn Mawr.

He decided to move in when he switched his major to geology. The program is based at the elite college known for educating high-powered women such as Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust and Karen Kornbluh, an adviser to President Obama.

"I have as many friends here as at Haverford and the facilities are so much nicer," Merriam explained in his closet-size room in Denbigh Hall. "The dorms are nicer and the food is so much better."

That's true, according to the Princeton Review, which rated Bryn Mawr fifth and 16th for best dorms and campus food respectively out of 368 schools. Haverford cracked the top 20 for being most liberal and having the hardest-studying students.

"Haverford is good," said Merriam, "but Bryn Mawr is phenomenal."

In the small world of Bryn Mawr, Merriam is famous in his own way. He was the talk of Facebook at the start of the year as everyone weighed in on the prospect of a guy's crashing the all-girls slumber party that is Bryn Mawr. (That doesn't include the transgender students on campus.)

It's not that boys aren't a common sight on campus, but Merriam is The Boy.

"I had heard the legend of Ginger Jesus," joked Rebecca Luberoff, 18, who lives on Merriam's hall. "Some people don't like a guy living on campus. They think, 'Oh my God, we're going coed.' But I think it's fine."

Before Haverford opened its doors to women in 1980, women and men lived at both campuses in order to get more of a coed experience, said Angie Sheets, director of residential life at Bryn Mawr.

That changed as those wanting a coed school opted for Haverford even though males were still welcome at Bryn Mawr. But the last time a young man called the campus home was 10 years ago.

Merriam thinks they're missing out.

"It's a beautiful place that rivals the Ivies," he said, though he admitted to lots of ribbing from family and friends about attending a Seven Sisters school.

His dorm is in a Gothic building with two large, nicely decorated common rooms on the first floor. One of the two bathrooms on his floor is designated coed. Women on the hall were asked ahead of time if they minded living with a man.

Merriam gets along well with his hallmates and tries to participate in as many activities as he can.

"James is great," said Danielle Rodriguez, 20, who lives a few doors away. Her boyfriend visits a lot, so he isn't the only guy hanging around.

Hall adviser Adrianna Link says the other students "adore him."

"He's very willing and open to engage. He realizes his position on campus and is very enthusiastic about being here. He's willing to put himself out there but knows his boundaries," she said.

Which means he will gladly pass up Bryn Mawr's traditional May Day celebration, in which there is lots of singing, dressing up and skipping around a maypole.

Merriam is still a Haverford student, and rides his bicycle there every day for class and to play on the cricket team. At Bryn Mawr, he writes for the newspaper and is in the musicals.

Being male and having hair like, well, a girl assures him a starring role in the next production.

"I was going to cut it until I heard the next show is Hair," he said. "The director called to make sure I was going to audition."

Living with hundreds of females for the last few months may have given him an edge in figuring out what women really want.

"I hadn't realized how social and caring women really are," Merriam said. "Whenever anyone has a problem, there are five or six people there in no time offering assistance."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.

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