Perhaps the hallmark of the first year experience at the University is the shared on-Grounds living experience. Dorm living has its perks — namely, camaraderie and support — but also has its downfalls, like long walks to Bodo’s and shared bathrooms. For many if not most students, our hallmates are the first people we meet at the University and our first friends.
In recent weeks, members of the University Community have spoken about a need for change, in both policy and cultural, in response to the Rolling Stone article. It seems we mostly are in agreement that something must change. However, the first step must be identifying what kind of concrete changes we want to see in our community. One distinct problem is the separation of first-year students by gender, which establishes a culture in which gender — rather than humanity — is the most important identifying factor for students. By integrating halls by gender, the University will create an environment characterized by compassion, understanding, and shared experience rather than characterized by gender divisions.
Last year, I lived in Hancock. Living in a hall of girls was fun, and I had the opportunity to make close friends in a comfortable environment. However, looking back, I realize living with only girls prevented me from forming close friendships with the opposite sex when I first arrived at school. I cannot speak for the other 3300 some first years living in other dorms, but from my conversations with other students I can say with some degree of confidence that most dorms had similar unspoken divisions in friendships. When walking to O’Hill for dinner, I would often see groups of girls or boys walking, but can’t remember a time when I saw an integrated group. Though I have seen friends form close friendships with the other gender within their dorm, I don’t think this is the average experience. Living in the same building as someone is not the same as living next to them, and does not allow you to get to know them as well as you would living with them over the course of an entire year, unless you are involved in some other group together.
As a result of the isolation of my own hall, I had very little understanding about what it was like to be a man at the University, and the unique social pressures men face. Likewise, I can assume the men living in my dorm did not know what it was like to be a woman at the University, and the challenges we face. It is easy to make generalizations when we cannot say, “I have a friend who….”
Even if men and women not interacting because of floor divisions was not a common experience at the University, I would still argue that integrated co-ed floors would be beneficial. Friendships are not the only concern here. Gender-dominated spaces do not breed a welcoming and inclusive environment. For me, visiting an all-male floor felt like visiting an extra-terrestrial body, and I was greeted by surprised looks which made me feel like I was somewhere I fundamentally didn’t belong.
As highlighted by my fellow columnist, George Knaysi, the University also lacks the LGBTQ considerate gender neutral housing option that over 140 universities across the US have recently introduced.
Some might claim boys and girls should live on separate floors for privacy or safety reasons. I would challenge this claim. We are aiming to establish a culture of unequivocal respect in which humanity is more important than any other identifiers. It is not presumptuous to assume men and women can live on the same floor and respect each other’s privacy and safety. Several other universities have dorms in which people of all gender identities cohabitate without major conflict.
I am a strong believer in the idea that dialogue and conversation between groups can have very tangible social benefits. In my experience as a Sustained Dialogue Moderator, I have frequently heard the phrase, “Wow! I had no idea that was the experience of [insert category that the student is not in here] at the University!” This shock results from a lack of interaction between different groups. While some criticize dialogue for not always being action-oriented, I think that encountering an opposite viewpoint or experience has immense value in its own right. Although these kinds of diverse conversations can occur in other areas of University life, they should be encouraged as soon as we arrive on Grounds. Co-ed halls will have more varied perspectives. For example, when the entire first year class goes to JPJ to listen to a presentation about sexual assaults, debriefs from that event are held among halls. For students to walk away from this presentation truly internalizing its message, it is vital that they hear reactions from students of varied gender-identities.
A living situation in which gender is the demarcation line between students will not breed the positive cultural changes this community needs. Men and women are expected to co-exist and collaborate in all other areas of University life. This cohesion and respect should start when we first arrive on Grounds.
Mary Russo is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.