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From the Issue: Put the Seat Down!

Be on the lookout for the February issue of The Blue & White, on campus now! Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include the first part of a discussion on the Columbia School, an investigation into Columbia’s animal testing practices, and a talk about, well, self-pleasure. Here, Alex Avvocato, Briana Last, and Alexandra Svokos enter the sometimes awkward world of open housing to check in on the pilot program.

open housing illustration

Illustration by Celia Cooper, CC ’15

In December 2009, the New York Post got wind of Columbia students seeking to bring gender neutral housing to campus, or, as they tactfully put it, “live in sin on their parent’s dime.” While the Open Housing initiative began as an option for LGBTQ students who might feel uncomfortable sharing a room with someone of the same sex, many participants in the program are heterosexual students interested in living with their friends. Still others are following the less recommended route of shacking up with a significant other.

Earlier this month, Katherine Cutler, Director of Communications and Special Projects, announced the success of the Open Housing pilot program, and the anticipated expansion of the residence option to all upperclassman dorms, with the exception of Furnald and Hartley-Wallach, for next year. In honor of this, The Blue & White decided to catch up with a few of the supposed heathens who dared participate in the pilot initiative to get their reflections on their year of cohabitation.

For many students, the fact that co-ed dorms were proscribed in the past was more alarming than the thought of living with someone of a different sex. According to Victoria Wills, CC ’14, who shares a walk-through double with her friend Conner Fox, CC ’14, “Going into Open Housing seemed really natural to me and I think it would be weird if it didn’t exist… I would find it really inconvenient and silly.” Conner echoed his roommate’s sentiment. For him, the decision to live with someone is based not in any one element of one’s self—namely the gender with which they identify—but about their person as a whole.

A second walk-through double has housed a similarly successful Open Housing experience. Taylor Dunne, SEAS ’14, and Sean von Ohlen, CC ’14, aren’t dating either, but that doesn’t keep speculators from their suspicions. These external assumptions have lead to bouts of awkwardness when Sean attempts romantic endeavors outside the room. “The best reaction I get is when I bring a girl home who doesn’t know I have a roommate who’s a girl,” he said mischievously. “Yeah, because Taylor doesn’t give you an idea of the exact gender,” adds Dunne. “It can go either way. So, sometimes, I get a ‘Who are you?’”

According to both Taylor and Sean, the girls Sean has dated tend toward an inherent distrust of Taylor—they typically assume the pair has shared a romantic history. “A lot of girls I’ve seen have asked if I’ve hooked up with my roommate. And the answer is no. But they still suspect it,” he added. Though the situation can be problematic, Sean amended that it occasionally lends him credit with the girls he’s dating. “I don’t really know how to gauge girls’ reactions when they find out I have a girl roommate,” he considered. “Sometimes it’s very positive, because they think that I must not be a creeper if I know how to live with a girl.”

But the minor stress of being accused of rela- tions with a roommate is a far cry from making the decision to room with a significant other. Lila Neiswanger, CC ’12, and Will Brown, SEAS ’12, have been dating since freshman year and decided to commit—to a living space—when the couple separately realized each was opting for housing in Woodbridge.

The decision was not immediate. “My friends have sort of always been dudes,” Lila said, explaining that she wanted to live with another male friend before Open Housing was even on the table. Will had previously lived in Woodbridge and hoped to score another spot in the coveted dorm. Having heard tales of Woodbridge’s apartment-like suites, Lila was equally interested. “But I didn’t really have anyone else that I wanted to be my roommate,” Lila explained, “so I asked Will if he wanted to room with me.” Though had a few initial reservations, the pair agreed that if it was not working out, their seniority would allow them to easily “rectify the situation.”

So far there has been no need for rectification. “Honestly,” Lila began, “I feel like it’s gone—I don’t want to say surprisingly smoothly because that would imply that I didn’t expect it to do so, but—” “It’s gone surprisingly smoothly,” Will interrupted, noting that having a roommate is always hard. Will spent his first three years at Columbia in doubles, while Lila managed lodging in singles; ergo, the prospect of living with a roommate of any gender seemed daunting.

After more than a semester in their Woodbridge suite, the couple stands by their choice. “It’s been really great,” Lila smiled. “I guess I could understand why some people might be upset about having their personal space violated by a person of the opposite gender, but if they were, then they probably shouldn’t apply for Open Housing.”

The strident disapproval of Columbia’s Open Housing initiative by the New York Post hints at a possible divide between the motivations of the participating students and the views of older generations. Indicatively, some students with whom we spoke had difficulty explaining their living situation to their parents.

Will’s parents okay-ed the decision, but Lila’s mother needed some prodding and an “I’m a grown-up person, Mom,” before she was convinced. Sean avoided the issue for some time, sensing that his “very Christian, conservative” parents wouldn’t be jumping for joy with his pre-marital, co-ed accommodations. He recounted, “I didn’t really run it by them until I was already at school. So, they were none too pleased. And then they met Taylor and they were all too pleased.” He looked at Taylor, smiling, “My parents love Taylor. She came over for Christmas and it was really nice. She cooked with my mother.”

While Emma Riley, a freshman planning to live in a co-ed suite next year, agrees that it’s “more [about] living with who you’re most comfortable with,” she acknowledges that managing multi-sexed rooms requires a level of consciousness foreign to her current all-girls suite. Would she lay down any new laws? Emma’s answer slowly evolved from “no” to the wise reflection that “we would probably have a pants rule.”

Ultimately, the new Open Housing policy is already capitalized upon by students for reasons outside of the LGBTQ comfort issue upon which the initiative was based. But rooming with friends is not an abuse of a system; it reflects, perhaps, a more general trend toward the over-emphasis of gender difference and increasingly antiquated separate-sex model. Although Columbia’s housing website explicitly states its recommendation against living with a romantic partner, there is demonstrable evidence of involved couples very much enjoying their roommate situation—a victory in itself, Open Housing or not.

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  • i'm surprised says:

    @i'm surprised theres no interview of the several gender neutral rooms in Q house, where the initial motivations for the measure might still be present. Would have rounded out the article.

  • By the way... says:

    @By the way... Ms. Dunne is a really good cook. Gonna miss her making food for me and my friends when I study abroad

  • CC'15 says:

    @CC'15 Well written article. I myself will be venturing into a co-ed situation next year. I’m excited to see how it goes.

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