Four seniors share a picture-perfect tradition

For these friends, a series of photos on ‘The Couch’ is a priceless college souvenir

They were suitemates their freshman year in Will Rice College: Brittany Fox and Al Ernst in one room, Liz Jackson and Sandra Marcatili in another. And on move-in day in August 2008, they all met each other for the first time.

Al Ernst, Brittany Fox, Liz Jackson and Sandra Marcatili line up for one more photo on "The Couch."

From left, Al Ernst, Brittany Fox, Liz Jackson and Sandra Marcatili will graduate this week. They've been posing for photos on "The Couch" since the day they met in 2008.

A couple of their dads lugged a green leather couch bought on Craigslist into their common living room. The rest of their family members took pictures.

“It was very chaotic that day, but all of our parents were very camera-happy,” Ernst recalled. And just before their families said goodbye, somebody’s dad asked the suitemates to line up on the green couch and pose for a photo to mark the moment.


“At that time, we’d only met each other an hour before,” Fox said, cringing a little at the memory. But the teens complied and sat down, trying not to let their shoulders touch.

That photo reflects the chaos of move-in day: Four near-strangers sit wedged together on a couch designed for two or three. A Bed Bath & Beyond bag clutters the background, overflowing with dorm-room essentials. And on the end of the row, Marcatili looks off in the wrong direction, smiling for one of several other flashing cameras.

The young women didn’t know each other yet. They certainly didn’t know they were starting a tradition they would come to treasure.

By the spring, the suitemates had built a solid bond and planned to share a suite again their sophomore year. And in April of that year – just as final exams were wrapping up – Fox, Ernst, Marcatili and Jackson decided to line up on the couch again to re-create the snapshot from nine months earlier.

They don’t remember why.

“I think somebody had the first picture and said, ‘Oh my gosh! Look how awkward we look here, and we know each other now,’” Fox said. “But I have no idea who was the driving force” behind the second photo.

They remember arranging themselves carefully, though, so the photos would look the same.

“We made sure we were in the same order,” Marcatili said. “Al and I had our hands back, and I looked to the side.”

By the time they returned for their sophomore year, the couch picture had turned into a habit. The four posed for another one that fall.

“Especially since we were all living together again, it was like, ‘Let’s take the couch picture,’” Jackson said.

And every year since, the friends have taken two couch photos – one at the school year’s beginning and another at its end. Each time, they line up in the same order. Each time, Fox tilts her head and Marcatili looks off to the side.

Their junior year, Jackson and Fox studied abroad – Fox in Rome and Jackson in Budapest. But before they left the country, Fox’s mom lined the women up on the couch and took a photo.

“Brittany’s mom has kind of kept us in line,” Ernst said. Fox laughed.

“My mom is organized, texting me: ‘Have you taken the couch picture?’” she said. “But I’m glad she has made us stay on it, because it’s good to have them all now.”

The photographers vary. So does the quality of the photos. In a couple of pictures, the women are sitting on a different couch. But those photos form a priceless timeline of their college years.

Only Fox has all eight of the photos, scattered in digital files here and there. But that first picture, with the date (08/17/2008) stamped in the bottom right corner, is the one they all know the best.

“I have that on my wall this year,” Marcatili said.

All four women will graduate on Saturday, earning degrees in architecture, classics and English, math and statistics, and environmental engineering.

Looking back at that photo from ’08, the women don’t think they look too different today.

“I think the biggest thing that’s changed is that we’re now really comfortable with each other, whereas that moment was really pretty awkward,” Jackson said.

Ernst agreed.

“It’s not so much how we’ve changed in appearance, but looking back makes me think about freshman year,” she said. “And I think we’ve all definitely grown up a lot since then, even if we don’t look that much older.”

This year Fox, Jackson and Marcatili have shared an eight-person Will Rice suite with five others, and Ernst has lived with other friends in an apartment just north of campus.

Ernst still has the couch, though, and this week, a few days before graduation, she and her freshman-year suitemates all gathered at her place to re-create the photo one more time.

“This couch has been through a lot,” Jackson said, rubbing its arm affectionately. They reminisced about the friends who’d sat there, the late nights they studied there, the cellphone that disappeared in its cushions for almost two years.

After graduation, the women will go their separate ways. Ernst is moving back to her hometown of Seattle, but the couch is staying with her current roommates, so “it’s going to stay in this house,” she said.

The memories, however, will travel with each of them.



About Alyson Ward

Alyson Ward is a writer in Public Affairs at Rice University.