Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Dorm life

Dec 09, 2010

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

This week George Washington University announced that students can share dorm rooms with anyone they want - regardless of gender. The change, lobbied by student group Allied in Pride, puts GWU at the forefront of the movement toward gender-neutral housing policies at many of the nation's top schools.

Joining Jenna will be Michael Komo, president of Allied in Pride and GWU student, to talk about changes in housing at college campus across the country. What is the situation like at your school? Would you want gender-neutral housing?

Happy Thursday! Welcome to Campus Overload Live...

There has been a lot of buzz lately about gender neutral housing -- and one of the latest colleges to let women and men room together is George Washington University here in DC.

Joining me is Michael Komo, a GW student and president of Allied in Pride. Michael has done years of research on the topic and helped lead the student campaign for gender neutral housing.

We are here for the next hour or so to answer all of your questions about campus living and anything college related. Let's get started!

Hello, everyone!  My name is Michael Komo.  I am a senior at GW majoring in political science and minoring in LGBT and sexuality studies.  I am the president of Allied in Pride, the main group that lobbied for gender-neutral housing at GW.  First of all, I want to thank Jenna and everyone at The Washington Post for having me today.  I am very excited to be here.  Gender-neutral housing is an extremely important issue to me, as well as the GW student body.  I am happy to be here and eager to get started.

Michael, Was your main opposition from the administration, conservative student groups such as the GW Young American Foundation, or a combination of both? What specific concerns did they bring up, and how did you address them? Thanks, Daniel Wein Undergraduate Student at GW

The GW student body and administration were extremely supportive.  We received a countless amount of endorsements from several student organizations on campus.  The GW Young American Foundation was actually the only group on campus to oppose the idea of gender-neutral housing at GW.  The administration just wanted to make sure that the research was there to support gender-neutral housing at GW.  We (members of Allied in Pride and all of the students involved in this process) presented them with a list of over 50 colleges and universities with gender-neutral housing, how they have implemented the programs, and what it looks like at those schools.  We then helped the administration draft a plan of how to implement it at GW.  I think it was an issue of educating folks who were unfamiliar with it moreso than anything else.  By the end, almost everyone involved was elated with the decision and could not have asked for a better outcome.

Doesn't this just mean people are going to live with their significant other? And isn't that kind of a problem?

Actually, there have been studies done with the colleges and universities that have implemented this nationwide.  What the research shows is that romantic couples living together is not really a problem at the schools that have implemented gender-neutral housing. Either it does not happen or it is so rare that it is not really a concern.  Currently, same-sex couples have the opportunity to live together through same-sex housing.  However, they make the wise decision not to do so.  What the research shows is that opposite-sex couples have been making those same wise decision across the nation.  I believe we will see that trend continue at GW.

Does the new GWU housing policy require a student to select a specific person with whom he or she wants to live or can you opt to be randomly assigned to a student of the opposite sex?

When the program starts at GW next fall, the opposite sex roommates will HAVE to know each other. There will be no random assignments. For that reason, school officials don't expect a lot of incoming freshmen to use the program.

I thought all schools already did this. Why is this news?

Almost all colleges and universities have co-ed dorms or residence halls.  However, only about 50 - 60 colleges and universities have co-ed rooms in those residence halls.  Men and women can live in the same room, not just on the same floor, at those schools.  Also, most of the schools with gender-neutral housing only offer this to upperclassmen.  At GW, we will be offering this program to all students (freshmen through seniors).  This is important because freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus, and we want to make sure that all students have the same rights and opportunities at GW.

In a city as densely developed as Washington, D.C., there are many opportunities for students to live in off-campus housing with roommates they choose. Why did students or the administration think this policy was necessary when that option exists?

There are lots and lots of apartments near the campus in Foggy Bottom -- but have you ever looked at the rent rates?! Totally not in the average student's budget.

A large majority of GW students live on campus -- and the students who have advocated for gender neutral housing say they should not have to leave campus to find a comfortable living situation.

A lot of other schools that have added a gender neutral option have done so in campus housing that is most like off-campus housing (like apartment-style dorms).

I can understand that some students - LGBT or straight - would feel more comfortable living with someone of the opposite gender. But part of the college experience is stepping outside of comfort zones. While a living situation may be tough, it can also be a great opportunity to learn about people with different lifestyles, values and perspectives. Could that be lost, at least in part, because of this gender-neutral policy?

This is a great question.  I don't think that the two have to be mutually exclusive.  For instance, I am an openly gay progressive human rights activist from Pennsylvania, and of my three roommates my freshman year was a straight, conservative, Catholic farmer from Kansas.  We could not have been more different.  We were both stepping out of our comfort zones our freshman year by choosing to live with each other (when we got randomly assigned) instead of switching to live with someone who better fit each of our demographics.  It actually worked out so well that we have been living together for four years.  I would not have changed that experience.  However, what would have made my experience even more meaningful would have been to live in a gender-neutral room (2 men; 2 women).  I would have liked to have kept my one roommate to expand my horizons and experience a different perspective of life from him and still have the comfort of living with two women.  Having a gender-neutral living environment can positively enhance a student's overall college experience in a way that nothing else can.

Jenna, what ever happened to Four Loko? Is it still for sale?

I have not seen it for sale anywhere in the DC area lately -- I guess it's time for people to start breaking into their secret stockpiles?

Last month the FDA and other federal agencies told manufacturers they had two weeks to take their alcoholic energy drinks (like Four Loko and Joose) off the market. Those two weeks are up, so I doubt you can find it anywhere.

What do you think is the best way students can get involved locally in order to get their voices heard?

Join student organizations at your college or university.  The students at GW are some of the most politically-active students in the country (both at GW and in DC).  One of the highlights of my college career has been being around such highly-motivated people.  Don't ever think of yourself as "just a student."  When you stand up for what you believe in, others will recognize that and give you the respect you and your cause deserve.  Approach students, faculty members, staff members, administrators, etc. with your ideas.  Start with people who you know will be your allies.  Always keep an open mind, and remember to have fun :).

Men having been sleeping in the rooms of women for generations. It''s not an official assignment but students can make their own arrangements.

hahaha -- that's true. For generations, creative college students have found ways around rules of all sorts. But, again, the goal of many gender neutral housing policies is to offer students more comfortable living arrangements. The thinking is that if students are happier with their roommates, they will be more likely to succeed on campus.

GW already has gender neutral housing. It's a townhouse called Escaping Gender and there has never been so much demand that students have been turned away. There's never been a waiting list. If there's no need, why is there a need for this new policy?

GW has one townhouse that has six spots for students this year.  Each year, only 6 students (out of the roughly 10,000 undergraduates) have the opportunity to partake in gender-neutral housing.  However, there are a few problems with this.  The first is that these 6 students have to re-apply for their gender-neutral environment every year.  They are a living and learning cohort.  They are not guaranteed to be approved.  So, if they were to not get approved one year, there would be no gender-neutral housing.  Second of all, we want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity.  Incoming freshman do not have the opportunity to live in a living and learning cohort before they arrive at GW.  Students can make living and learning cohorts once they are current students but not before they come to GW.  Finally, some folks do not want to live in living and learning cohorts and just want to be mixed in with other students who do not.  It would be unfair to penalize them for not wanting to live in a living and learning cohort just because their housing needs are different from students who are comfortable in same-sex housing.

College is less and less about learning these days. Colleges are enabling students to focus more and more on their sex lives and social lives with policies like this.

Well, I would say that this might be an unfair characterization of college.  I think that college is just as focused on learning.  However, I would say that we are now addressing the different needs of students in the twenty-first century that were not necessarily addressed in the past.  LGBT students often feel more comfortable living with someone of a different gender.  If those students are uncomfortable or unhappy in their living environments, then they will be LESS likely to do well in school.  We are trying to prevent that problem.  We want all students (regardless of gender or sexual orientation) to feel comfortable in their living environments.  This will ultimately help them perform better in school.  Also, college is about figuring out who YOU are and addressing YOUR needs...not comforming to what one is "supposed" to do or to what has been done.  At least for rabble-rousers like me that is the case :P.

What's is significant about the drug bust at Columbia? Are students really that heavily involved (not just users) at other colleges?

Great question! "Operation Ivy League" did seem like unusual news -- a group of high-achieving students at a top college dealing drugs out of their frat houses and dorm rooms. It was just as surprising as the DMT lab bust at Georgetown University earlier this semester.

In the past, usually most students bought drugs from off-campus dealers with no ties to the university. It's interesting to see students setting up their own enterprises -- and I have no idea how wide spread this is. (Anyone out there know?)

What's not news is this: College students do drugs. Whether it's smoking pot at parties or snorting Adderall during finals, a good number of college students have at least experimented with drugs. And college officials are kidding themselves if they think the drug busts this semester were isolated incidents.

Keep those questions coming! What else do you want to know about gender neutral housing at GW and elsewhere? Or do you have any other college-related questions?

What about the gender neutral bathroom question -- isn't that even more important than who you room with? What is being done across the country to deal with making bathrooms more friendly...

Gender-neutral bathrooms are important.  We (GW Allied in Pride and the GW LGBT Resource Center) have actually identified a lits of all gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.  We post the list on our websites for all GW students to access.  We have also contacted community spaces (i.e. our gym) on campus and informed them of the need for gender-neutral bathrooms.  Our gym offers gender-neutral changing facilities now, which is a great start.  Furthermore, we have advocated that all new buildings being built at GW have gender-neutral bathrooms.  For instance, South Hall, one of the newest residence halls, has only gender-neutral bathrooms.  I am confident that we will see this trend continue to grow as more and more schools offer gender-neutral housing.  It will just take a little time!

Would you have used GNH personally during your time at GW?

Absolutely!  I would have been Will & Grace-ing it so fast it would make your head spin!  Gay men and women would certainly know how to make a residence hall room pretty fabulous...am I right?!   Haha.  On a serious level though, many of my friends are women.  I would have loved to have lived with half men and half women.  I never want to have to pick and choose who I can and cannot live with because of a factor (gender) that people cannot control.  I want to live with my best friends (regardless of gender or sexual orientation)...just like everyone else!

Do you think it's going to pass the senate today? What's the buzz at the Post?

Well, Democrats just delayed the vote.  The Senate was short by 60 votes. So, again, we wait and see.

What is a gender neutral bathroom?

A gender-neutral bathroom is a bathroom in which anyone can use it (regardless of gender).  I'm sure you've seen a unisex bathroom or a family bathroom at a building or an airport.  Some establishments offer bathrooms for men, bathrooms for women, and bathrooms that are gender-neutral.  It is up to the patrons to decide what is the best for himself or herself.  Very few establishments have only gender-neutral bathrooms now.  One I can think of is Cafe Asia, a restaurant on I Street in NW DC.  In the restroom, there are fifteen stalls - from the floor to the ceiling.  Each one locks of, course.  Anyone and everyone can use this one communal bathroom.  That way, people who may not fit into the traditional gender dichotomy can use the restroom without fear or pressure of harassment that they might be in the "wrong" bathroom.

I think gender neutral activity is great. Even in high school - in our clique - our parents let us have sleep overs. Your ability to understand and empathize with others is expanded I believe. The problem seems to be people who apply a strict religious template over life. They always seem to be judging, even if it is on a subconscious level. I'm gay, and am dealing with a suite-mate who has internalized a notion that gays are evil, bad, terrible people. I can't even begin to mention the damage he has done to me in just these few weeks. My philosophy is don't be too quick to judge, keep an open mind, and try to understand others.

Thanks for sharing your experience -- and remember that you can always ask for a roommate transfer or have a RA mediate if things get out of hand. Regardless of where people stand on this issue, I think everyone agrees that college students should feel comfortable with their roommates.

A message that GWU officials stressed over and over when talking about gender neutral housing is that it is completely voluntary.

And beyond LGBT issues -- college students these days are more likely than earlier generations to have best friends of the opposite sex.

No question, just a big thank you to bringing this question out. During my undergrad years I love co-ed roommate. my grade were better and we got along better. Seems most people, I run into who are opposed to this think men and women have to be having sex to be friends or live together - NOT TRUE.

You're very welcome! I'm glad that you had the opportunity to participate in gender-neutral housing.  Perhaps it is thanks to pioneers like you that made it possible for over 50 colleges and universities to have implemented gender-neutral housing!  I agree.  I love my female friends, but I can assure you that my relationship with them would remain friendly if we were to live together ;-).

I had never ever heard of this until this week. How many colleges are doing this? If it's so common, why don't more people know about it?

"Gender neutral housing" is definitely not a mainstream term, and I had to explain it to several people while reporting on this story. At least 50 colleges offer some form of gender neutral housing (women living with men) but usually the option is often limited to one hall or learning community, or only available to upperclassmen, or only available in apartment-style halls where each student has his or her own room.

A majority of GW students do NOT support this. Why didn't the university survey them or put this to a vote?

Au contraire, my friend!  GNH was actually put up to several votes - the Student Association Student Life Committe, the Student Association Senate, the Residence Hall Association, etc.  All of these votes were overwhelmingly in favor of gender-neutral housing!  There was a survey done on campus which gauged a random sampling of students in the spring 2010 semester in which any students could participate.  Also, the administration formed a committee that met with any and all students who signed up to give their opinions from March 2010 - May 2010.  Over 90% of the survey respondents and the students who testified in front of the committee were in favor of gender-neutral housing.  If those positive numbers aren't enough for you...think of it this way: For those students who want to live in opposite-sex housing, they will now have the freedom to do so.  If you want to continue living in same-sex housing, feel free to continue do so.  You will be completely unaffected by the program.  It's a win-win for everyone!

My roommate visits his girlfriend on weekends; and I usually go home or visit friends; or when it snows I head for Wintergreen. A few weeks back I stayed in the room on Friday night to get some work done. Around 2am, there was a bang on the wall. It caught my attention and I could hear the guys next door making out. I guess they thought both of us were gone - mostly we are. Later that morning, when Ieaving, one of them opened the door and saw me. I waved or something but was only thinking about stuff I had to do. Ever since, both of them avoid me. Personally I don't care. I've never said anything. But maybe they think I will. Both have girlfriends. Should I just go over and say, listen, I did hear, but not to worry. I'm ok with whatever?

Uhhhh... well... I would say it's best to not start up that conversation. Leave it to them to bring up the topic. The best thing you can do is keep this information to yourself and continue to be friendly. As time goes on (and the information stays private) everything will fade and get less awkward. Hopefully.

Are these gender neutral also? I think I would feel vunerable. It's not like you can lock the shower door...

At GW, we have individual bathrooms in our residence hall rooms.  For instance, I am currently living in a quad with three men.  We all have separate bedrooms and have two bathrooms for the four of us to share.  Next year, if there are two men and two women living in this room, it will be up to them how to use the bathrooms.  However, I lock the bathroom when I am taking a shower - regardless of who my roommates are.  Privacy is important, and we want to respect that.  I don't think it will be a big adjustment with gender-neutral rooms whatsoever because all bathrooms are used by one person at a time!

With so many similar schools around the DC region, how do you keep your reporting from becoming a horse race among colleges? Or is that an angle that should be explored on issues?

It does get to feel like a horse race at times, especially with so many colleges in such a small area. Dan de Vise (who covers higher ed) and I try to focus on issues that touch several colleges and things that make individual schools unique.

And we are always looking for story ideas!

Thank you to Jenna and the readers!  I very much enjoyed myself today!  If you would like to continue this conversation, please contact me at the "Colonials for Gender-Neutral Housing" Facebook page or my twitter (@michaelrkomo).  Take care!

Yikes, looks like we are already out of time. Thank you to everyone who sent in questions. And thanks, Michael, for joining me today (I learned a lot by reading your answers).

Please stop back by next Thursday at 1 p.m. Until then, you can find me on Twitter, @wpjenna, and my blog, Campus Overload.

Have a great week!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Michael Komo
Michael R. Komo is a senior majoring in political science at George Washington University. He has been the president of Allied in Pride, the largest LGBT student group on campus, for the past three years. He is an activist for the LGBT community both at GW and in DC. He has an endless love for politics, which is what brought him to D.C. in the first place. Michael plans on pursuing a lifelong career in public service.
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