From roommates to rent checks, students find a home at Oxy

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For most students, the on-campus living experience begins with an email from Residential Education and Housing Services (REHS) the summer before their first year at Occidental. Apprehensive about the unknown experiences that await them, students immediately start scouring Facebook for their first college roommate. They wade through waves of posts on the incoming class Facebook page to see who has which residence hall. To round it out, they Google their housing assignment to get a snapshot of the pristine exterior of Newcomb Hall, the well-groomed lawn outside Stewie Hall or the tucked-away treasure that is Braun Hall.

If asked whether that excitement about on-campus living subsisted throughout the course of their college career, every Occidental student will give a different answer. Some elect to move off campus by their junior or senior years, stepping into the wide world of rent payments and neighborly relations. Others are satisfied with easy access to “Meatless Mondays” at the Marketplace or Tuesday night hall spreads, taking advantage of the convenience of on-campus resources and relishing the opportunity to focus on school activities.

Nonetheless, REHS requires all Occidental students to live on campus for the first three years of enrollment, unless they apply for Third Year Live Off.

Both students and REHS search for ways to make Occidental feel like a home, from matriculation to graduation. But when REHS’s policies compete with students’ personal desires or practical concerns, tension and frustration can easily obscure the conversation.

Pasadena native Yasmin Dabbah (sophomore) looked forward to saving money by attending a school close to home. As a first-year, she contacted REHS about the possibility of living at home, but REHS requirements prevented her from doing so.

“It felt like more of a waste of money to dorm,” Dabbah said. “It’s an extra $15,000 a year to have a room that I barely use.”

Before sophomore year, she again inquired about the possibility of living off campus, but instead was placed in an on-campus residence hall. Being so close to her family, Dabbah said she rarely stays in her Erdman room overnight and frequents home four to five times per week to sleep. Now, she awaits the result of the junior live-off application, released during the spring semester, to determine whether or not she can opt out of living in Occidental’s residence halls.

“What bothers me most is there’s no consideration of practicality. I’m less than five miles from campus,” Dabbah said. “The fact that my class standing makes me spend obscene amounts of money is upsetting. I think living in dorms is better for people who aren’t from around campus.”

Dabbah’s story underscores a limitation of REHS on-campus living policies: Although living off-campus can be cheaper for students living at home or splitting rent with friends, college policy requires them to spend more on room and board.

In terms of finances, off-campus housing is not subsidized by the Financial Aid Office, which means any student who elects to live off campus will see their aid decreased. Off-campus living estimations are determined by the California Student Aid Commission Student Expenses and Resources survey. The 2014-15 room and board bill is $13,450, whereas the estimated cost of off-campus and stay-at-home living are $9,254 and $4,800, respectively.

Director of REHS Chad Myers believes that on-campus living fosters a sense of community and provides access to a multitude of resources to students.

“I think the biggest benefit to living on campus versus off campus is the immediate access to resources and services—services that you as a student are paying for,” Myers said via email. “Research shows that students living on campus tend to interact more with faculty, have higher GPAs and are more socially engaged than their peers that live off campus.”

Nevertheless, the Third Year Live Off option appeals to students wishing to delve into the off-campus lifestyle. The application consists of a series of questions pertaining to on-campus involvement, reasons for wanting to reside off campus and overall expectations for the off-campus living experience. The applications go live in February and remain open through early March. After receiving every application, REHS associate directors review those applications, the applicant’s GPA and past conduct history.

“We look at the number of past cases, the severity of those cases and then the time frame since the last case of a student,” Myers explained.

According to statistics obtained from REHS at the time of Room Draw, the number of applications approved has varied over the past three years. However, the GPA cut-off for those offered housing exemption has increased notably, from 2.88 in 2011-12 to 3.23 in 2013-14.

When assessing junior live-off applications, Myers reiterates the importance of community to members who wish to live off campus at Occidental.

“The community aspect of attending a college like Oxy is something that our office highly values, so we want to make sure that those students living off campus are still contributing to the campus community and in a positive and meaningful manner,” Myers said.

While some students are ultimately granted the opportunity to live off campus for their junior year, it can be a nerve-racking process for students who are denied.

One male senior, who chose to remain anonymous in order to protect his on-campus employment, lived on campus for his first three years at Occidental. Last year, he and his roommate—a sophomore at the time —wanted to live off campus, but his roommate had to go through the Third Year Live Off application. Neither student went through Room Draw and they instead found a condo off campus, confident that the roommate’s high GPA, on-campus involvement and clean conduct history would earn him off-campus status from REHS. But before he could sign the lease, his off-campus application was denied.

“It was never made clear to us why he wasn’t approved to live off campus in the first place,” the anonymous senior said.

Koryeh Cobb (junior) also found difficulty during the approval process for Third Year Live Off. Cobb wanted to live in the Alpha Lambda Phi Alpha sorority house but was placed on the off-campus wait list during the application process. She then emailed REHS about the chances that she would be removed, only to be met with an inconclusive answer from REHS.

“It was really frustrating because there wasn’t anything that I could do to speed up the process,” Cobb said. “It was annoying to wait constantly. I never got an answer from them—I had to go to them directly.”

Cobb had not gone through the room draw process, so her living situation was up in the air until a friend contacted her over the summer about an opening in her room in Berkus Hall.

“I was ready to live off campus and I wanted a new experience at Oxy,” Cobb said. “I wasn’t super attached to it, but the fact that [REHS] made it so difficult to live off campus made me want to even more.”

Many aspects of living off campus appeal to students—saying hello to next-door neighbors on the way to school, hosting large gatherings, and even fostering a sense of maturity through bill payments and upkeep. While living on campus offers easy access to resources for studying, nutrition and exercise, others want breathing room outside campus grounds.

According to REHS, the number of seniors living on campus climbed from 135 in the 2011-12 academic year to 220 in 2013-14.

Jim Slaney (senior) went abroad during the fall of his junior year and returned to live on campus in the spring. Slaney currently lives in Berkus Hall but had hoped to live in a house or an apartment as part of his college experience.

“You get to sleep in your own bed, you have a house that you’re responsible for, you have your own space,” Slaney said. “You get that separation, and I think at this point, that separation is valuable.”

For seniors at Occidental, convenience appears to be the biggest selling point for staying on campus. Swimmer Abby Bailey (senior), who frequently stays up late in the library and wakes up early for practices, takes full advantage of on-campus housing to make her day run smoothly.

“Living on campus is just easier,” Bailey said. “It’s easier to stay in the library that extra hour if I know I can just walk back to my room rather than walk home. Having a meal plan also factors into convenience because there are so many things I can save time on. After practice, I can go eat; I don’t have to go home and cook dinner.”

Bailey, along with Slaney, originally hoped to live off campus for her senior year but did not secure housing early enough. While Bailey and her friends struck out on inheriting an upperclassman’s house, Slaney searched online for housing in the Eagle Rock area to no avail.

“Now I tell everybody, ‘Read the Root! It will help you find housing way easier,” Slaney said.

For Berkus Hall resident Sadie Lindner (junior), the off-campus application process did not appeal as much—she prefers the convenience of the on-campus lifestyle. But she also notices a sharp difference between the first-year community in Stewie and the upperclassman-dominated Berkus.

“I was close to everybody in Stewie, but living [in Berkus], everyone is more secluded,” Lindner said. “Everyone has their own bathrooms, there’s no sense of community—everybody is pretty isolated.”

Kara Alam (sophomore) agrees with Lindner’s sentiments. That difference, according to Alam, has influenced her consideration for applying to live off campus her junior year.

“Living in an upper-division hall there’s a lot less community,” Alam said. “I would consider living off campus because living on campus doesn’t provide any sort of community right now. I had a great community in Chilcott. Now, living in Erdman, I feel alone.”

Although Lindner finds she often goes through a day without talking to or interacting with fellow residence hall members, she appreciates on-campus living and the benefits of not having to manage an off-campus space of her own.

“I feel like people are so ready to live off campus,” Lindner said. “But it’s not terrible to live on campus. It’s not some horrible thing—it’s easy, it’s a lot less work and you don’t have to a grow up as fast.”

It is hard to deny that off-campus life opens students up to adult experiences that they would not normally have living on campus. For many off-campus students, this can be a blessing in disguise.

“I’m more aware of what I’m spending,” the anonymous senior said. “I feel like that aspect is essential for a college-aged person. That’s what you miss out on when you’re an on-campus student: spending money and buying groceries every week. There’s no sense of responsibility that you have to take in your on-campus living conditions.”

Ali Flaming (senior), who currently lives off campus, also sees the value in of off-campus living.

“No matter whether you or your parents are paying for rent, you’re so much more aware of dealing with finances,” Flaming said. “Learning how to do deal with that at the end of your college career is a very stressful experience. Letting students develop those skills earlier is a lot better for personal growth.”

Flaming’s story is more unique than most, as she was permitted to live off campus as a junior without completing the Third Year Live Off application. Flaming’s father took a full-time job in Madagascar during her junior year, which required her family to move overseas. Originally from Hood River, Ore., Flaming wanted both a place within the country to store all of her possessions and a place to call home.

“The idea of having a consistent home in the U.S. was something comforting to come back to, which I was already nervous about,” Flaming said.

Flaming and her father emailed REHS requesting an exception to the off-campus housing policy, and REHS granted her request. Since then, she has noticed a distinct difference in her ability to engage with the surrounding community.

“Actually seeing a professor as a neighbor, living in the community, is really cool to see,” Flaming said. “It has helped me break out of the Oxy bubble.”

Breaking out of the “Oxy Bubble” is a common struggle for students. With the luxury of on-campus resources, students can easily remain on campus without getting to know the surrounding neighborhood or the greater Los Angeles area.

“At Oxy, it is easy to spend all four years on campus, but at the same time, I’d like to see greater integration in the Eagle Rock community,” the anonymous senior said. “We’re situated right here and it does not seem like we have a good relationship with the community.”

Myers suggests that students take advantage of the college’s resources in order to go out into the city and engage with the community.

“Our office as well as many other offices, such as the Office of Community Engagement, are continuously providing opportunities to get into and interact with the greater L.A. area through programming,” Myers said. “So I would argue that it would be easier and cheaper to do so when living on campus, because these events are planned for you and usually provided at little to no cost to students.”

Students like Flaming nonetheless feel that the three-year requirement hinders growth outside of the classroom.

“After your sophomore year of college, you’re developing your interests and becoming more of an adult member of society,” Flaming said. “You are then told you don’t have the choice to live in a house, or learn how to pay rent, or engage with adults in the community. I think engaging with adults outside of your academic career is a really important skill.”

The on-campus policy can also come at the expense of other students.

“It’s more the waste that bothers me,” Dabbah said. “Somebody else could use my room, and take full advantage of the space. My friends who are locals also feel this way—it’s a waste, financially and socially.”

Lindner suggested that the school implement an easier, more free-flowing process for juniors to live off campus if they so choose.

“It’s nice to have the option to live on campus all four years, but it would also be nice to be easier to live off campus your junior year,” Lindner said. “It’d be nice to have the option without applying or missing the deadline.”

Whether in a first-year residence in Chilcott or a house with friends off of Campus Road, the quality of the Occidental living experience is still determined by the individual and his or her experiences. Students can choose to bar-hop downtown or hop on a Bengal Bus to the Americana. They can hole up with friends watching Netflix in a Berkus Hall study room or walk to Friday night karaoke at All Star Lanes; eat lunch at home or join a friend at the Marketplace. Ultimately, students choose how important their living situation is to their overall college experience.

“I don’t necessarily believe that living in a residence hall helped me make friends or connect me to the greater Occidental community,” Dabbah said. “I still spend a large portion of my day on campus, which is when you’re really conversing with people and interacting.”

While living off campus may remove students from Occidental physically, the anonymous senior still found that it has not influenced his ability to remain connected to the campus.

“I’m more involved this year than I ever have been,” the anonymous senior said. “I’m probably spending a lot more time interacting with people on campus than I ever have.”

Dabbah echoed the senior’s statement.

“Oxy still feels like a home, whether or not it’s where I shelter myself,” Dabbah said.