A group of people socialize in a room with the Puerto Rico and Ethiopia flags painted on the wall.

From ‘Eco’ to Ujamaa, Program Houses Offer Community

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By Lindsay Lennon

Arriving on the Hill as a first-year is an experience replete with wonder and possibility—but for some, it can also bring a bit of culture shock. Students from small high schools, for example, are swimming in a vast sea of their peers; those from denser urban areas must adjust to the Ithaca region’s more remote, rural feel.

Those are among the reasons why, since 1970, many incoming Cornellians have chosen to begin their Big Red journeys on a familiar footing—by living in program houses.

Whether the houses are formed around passions, cultural backgrounds, or academic fields, these micro-communities have a common mission: to celebrate and embrace their residents’ shared identities and interests.

For many students living on their own for the first time, this instant common ground with neighbors gives them a much-needed leg up as they begin navigating campus life.

“Our program houses allow a student to select an environment they feel they would connect with right away, or in an easier way,” says Tim Blair, executive director of housing and residence life. “We want to make sure that our students, coming to a very large campus, have a sense of belonging.”

We want to make sure that our students, coming to a very large campus, have a sense of belonging.

Tim Blair, executive director of housing and residence life

Most program houses are located on North Campus, where first-years are required to live (barring an exception, such as matriculating at age 21 or older). A few others, like the Veterans House and the Equity & Engagement Community, are situated elsewhere and aren’t geared toward housing traditional first-years.

One residence, the Language House—an immersive experience with suites in Japanese, French, Spanish, and Mandarin—recently moved to Toni Morrison Hall on North Campus, but is only open to upperclassmen.

As the fall semester gets underway, here’s a tour of the North Campus program houses—where so many Cornellians have found their first home on the Hill:


The residence celebrating North American Indigenous culture and heritage was the first of its kind in the nation when it opened in 1991. Its name, pronounced “uh-GWAY-go,” translates to “all of us” in Mohawk.

The exterior of Akwe:kon at Cornell University has vibrant purple accents and painted symbols throughout.
The striking building stands at an entrance to North Campus. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Akwe:kon houses 35 students, with roughly half in any given year being of Indigenous background. It offers numerous public events, including lectures, workshops, film screenings, and dance performances.

The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people gave substantial input into the house’s design, from architecture to landscaping. Its theme of communal spirit shines through in such features as barrel-vaulted ceilings evoking a longhouse, a purple-and-white circle wampum on the south wall, and a row of boulders representing the six Haudenosaunee nations.

Ecology House

With a focus on sustainability and environmental justice, Ecology House is a haven for nearly 100 like-minded Cornellians.

Their passion for environmentalism is reflected in amenities such as an extensive recycling program, nontoxic cleaning supplies, and energy-efficient laundry machines.

A group of college students roast marshmallows on a campfire in the evening.
An Eco campfire in 2013. (Cornell University)

The facility—known among residents as “Eco”—also boasts a "swap shop" where students can share unwanted items for community reuse. And it offers students a slew of eco-oriented volunteer opportunities, like community cleanups.

Loving House

The residence opened in 2019 with the aim of providing an inclusive community for LGBTQIA+ students and their allies. With space for 30 people on the first floor of Mews Hall, it provides an affirming environment where students of all sexual orientations and gender identities are unconditionally embraced.

By fostering open discussions about topics related to gender and sexuality, the house aims to empower residents to openly express their identities and learn from each other’s experiences.

Risley Residential College

In 1970, Risley became home to the Hill’s first program house—and it remains the largest. The arts-themed hall houses nearly 200 dancers, musicians, thespians, and visual artists (though an arts-related major is not a prerequisite for joining).

Dating from 1913, the building itself—with its castle-like design—is a beloved East Hill landmark. It's also the venue for popular events like the Halloween “MasqueRave” and viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The exterior of Risley Hall at Cornell University with two college students walking by.
Risley’s distinctive architecture makes it a campus icon. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

In its “dungeon” (basement), “Risleyites” have access to fine arts shops and studios offering workshops in printmaking, woodworking, jewelry making, and more.

In 2017, Risley’s Tudor-style dining hall—modeled after the Oxford University refectory that inspired the one in the Harry Potter films—was certified gluten-, peanut-, and tree nut-free.

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Holland International Living Center

Founded in 1970 as a space to facilitate international students’ entry into Cornell, the center has grown to embrace U.S.-based students, many from multicultural families.

The entrance of the Jerome H. Holland International Living Center at Cornell University featuring a brown brick facade and a wood and metal archway on the entrance path.
The center honors a distinguished alum. (Provided)

Formerly called the International Living Center, the facility was renamed in 1985 in honor of Jerome “Brud” Holland ’39, MS ’41, the first Black player on the Big Red football team and a leading U.S. academic.

It houses some 170 students from around the world.

With a focus on global consciousness, residents share an affinity for international issues and cross-cultural communication.

Given its high number of international students—who may not be able to travel home during academic breaks—the center stays open during the University-wide closure between fall and spring semesters.

Just About Music (JAM)

Whether you’re bonkers for bluegrass, giddy for Glee Club, or cuckoo for K-pop, the JAM house is a music lover’s paradise.

Perhaps surprisingly, the 166 residents—known as JAMmies, or the JAMily—usually include just a handful of music majors.

A man stands on a stage with a table full of DJ equipment in front of him, as well as various sets of drums, while another man works on a laptop to the side of the stage.
A hip hop artist sets up for a show. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

But you wouldn’t guess that from the amenities: a full recording studio, a soundproof room, a 24-hour piano room, and a wide collection of practice instruments, from drums to guitars.

With a fully equipped concert stage, JAM hosts a monthly open mic night that draws students from across the Hill to showcase their talents—or just enjoy the show.

Multicultural Living Learning Unit

Known as McLLU—pronounced “McClue”—this diversity-focused residence, located in Clara Dickson Hall, houses some four dozen students. It was founded in 1991 by students seeking to build an eclectic, inclusive community of students with a range of perspectives and backgrounds.

McLLU is committed to celebrating human differences in all forms—race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and physical abilities. Social and academic programming abound, including the “McLLUnity” nights focused on topics of activism and expression.

Ujamaa Residential College

In Kiswahili, “Ujamaa” means working together as an extended family to build a cohesive community.

In that spirit, Ujamaa Residential College was founded in 1972 as a venue for celebrating the rich and diverse cultures of the African Diaspora.

Home to 144 students, it offers a packed calendar of lectures, faculty dinners, and student-led forums, as well as Black History Month events and more. 

The exterior of Ujamaa Residential College at Cornell University, with one student walking into the building with their back turned and another student walking away from the building.
Ujamaa is among the Hill’s most longstanding program houses. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Ujamaa also hosts a popular weekly Unity Hour, where students and faculty discuss topical and historical events pertaining to the Black community. 

Latino Living Center

Each semester, the center’s 55 residents—united by their appreciation for Latinx culture—arrive to a sign reading “Bienvenidos a Su Casa” (Welcome to Your Home).

Located in Anna Comstock Hall, the center prides itself on creating a homey environment that celebrates the importance of family—“the Latinx way,” as its website observes.

A large group of students have an outdoor party on a college campus.
The annual Bienvenidos BBQ. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

It also holds events during Latino Heritage Month, hosts Day of the Dead parties, and more.

With its weekly Café con Leche discussion series, the center delves into topical issues—with past sessions addressing such subjects as navigating regional identities and advancing Latinx people in the workforce.

Top: Students enjoy a barbecue at Ujamaa in 2014. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Published August 28, 2023


  1. Minister Gligor Tashkovich, Class of 1987

    I feel that any alumnus who has been selected to serve on the Cornell Board of Trustees should -always- be recognized as such in future articles. Dr. Holland also served on the Cornell Board of Trustees and I wanted to make this comment accordingly.

  2. Howard Schwartz, Class of 1985

    Anything for Jewish students other than the orthodox Hillel House?

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