Flying the co-op

One of the things I liked best about Wesleyan University was the fact that all seniors live in houses. Not dorms, but actual houses. As a 17-year-old touring colleges, I thought that the idea of living with a few of my friends independent of any sort of authority figure was beyond awesome. It was my dream. Obviously (spoiler alert), I did not end up going to Wesleyan. I did end up lucky enough to pick into a co-op, where eight other seniors and I live a “semi-independent” lifestyle apart from dining halls and neighborhood coordinators.

As my year in Milham and my time at the College come to an end, I have been giving one question a lot of thought: What is college for? Is it purely academic, designed to teach you how to think? Or is it purely practical, a place where you can learn all the skills you will need to get a good job and succeed in the world? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. College is certainly about learning. I have been lucky enough to take six semesters of amazing classes in all sorts of subjects. Yet, if college were only about academics, it would be more like high school. We would not have campuses, would not have housing, would not move away from home to experience what college really is. Some of the most invaluable things that I have taken away from my time here have been outside of the classroom, namely from my year in Milham.

For a school like the College, with such a focus on residential life, co-ops should be a bigger part of the housing system. A student who lives in a dorm on the 21-meal plan will have all her meals cooked for her, all her common areas and bathrooms cleaned for her and will never have to think about what it means to really live on her own. While co-ops are certainly not the same as living off-campus, I believe they provide a kind of intermediate space in which students can learn valuable skills before they jump into the “real world,” as my parents like to call it.

Living in a small space without a designated leadership figure also forces students to learn how to interact with one another and negotiate conflict without having someone clear to turn to. If I am frustrated with people leaving their dirty dishes in the sink, I cannot just email my neighborhood coordinator and expect him or her to take care of it. I have to actually confront the situation, which for someone as non-confrontational as I am, has been a steep learning curve.

Building up the co-op system would have additional benefits. Oftentimes dorms can feel large and impersonal, particularly after the cozy entry set-up. It is hard to make new friends and meet people, even if you live right next to them. I have read that a key to making new friends is spontaneous social interaction. The kitchen provides exactly that kind of space. It is easy to talk to people while you are both cutting up vegetables for your dinner, and Milham has been brought together by house meals. I doubt I would be friends with my housemates if we did not live in a house set-up. 

Were there more co-ops on campus, the housing system would be immeasurably improved for people of all years. The fact that co-ops are still offered as College housing means that students who cannot afford to live off campus can still get a similar living experience, and are not stuck in dorms for all four of their years here. Removing seniors from dorms would allow more underclassmen to live in singles. As someone who spent her first two years at the College crammed into tiny doubles, I firmly support any housing initiative that would increase the percentage of singles on campus. Having one’s own space, particularly in such a high-pressure environment, is invaluable.

I certainly do not know the economics or the feasibility of a potential co-op increase. What I do know is that I have experienced both sides of the housing system. And while the gentle beginning to college life that is the entry system certainly has its place and is a huge part of the experience at the College, keeping that suspended adolescence all the way through senior year is something that the College should really consider changing. 

Emma Martucci ’15 is a history and political science double major from New York, N.Y. She lives in Milham.