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What if Notre Dame were co-ed

| Tuesday, February 17, 2015

During my four years as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, I have witnessed most, if not all, students complain about gender relations, the hook-up culture and the social roles both males and females feel they are expected to maintain as students living on campus. These uncomfortable and sometimes tense gender relations are further validated by events designed to encourage the men and women of Notre Dame to interact in healthier ways, engage in dialogues about dating and sexuality and even embrace their own individual quirks and awkwardness to build better relationships with each other.

Although these activities have inherent value for helping individuals navigate the unique social culture here, there seems to be an overwhelming consensus that the University’s structures not only create, but perpetuate, a number of these social issues. The Gender Relations Center does a tremendous job in trying to create safe spaces for students to explore their identities as men and women and understand how they influence interpersonal relationships, but it is an issue every department and institute of the University needs to address, especially the Office of Community Standards.

What does it mean to cultivate a spirit of inclusion for a diverse group of students? If we are to call Notre Dame home, it becomes the responsibility of the entire community to develop and nurture spaces for all of its students to thrive in an environment they feel fully accepted in, beginning with the place they are to call home — their dorms. As we know, Notre Dame requires its undergraduate students to live on campus in single-sex residence halls during their first academic year. The dorm a student is randomly assigned to as a freshman becomes their place of residence for the next four-to-five years unless they opt to transfer to a different hall, join a specific hall if one of its residents pull them in as a roommate or move off-campus after the first year. Most students, however, will usually spend all four years in the same dorm they were first assigned to as freshmen or opt to move off campus as seniors.

Dorm life at Notre Dame can be a phenomenal and enriching experience that allows students to meet people of all races, ethnicities, countries and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although Notre Dame does not have sororities and fraternities, dorm life certainly offers many of those same Greek-life experiences to its residents, from signature events to exclusive dances and charity drives. Additionally, each dorm has developed its own identity, mascot and stereotypes that most students characterize its residents by. Through a variety of University competitions and activities, these identities become something to take pride in, to protect, uphold and maintain — creating rival dorms and brother-sister dorm coalitions. While boosting competition and pride in one’s hall can be a great way to strengthen the unity and camaraderie students feel in their dorm and with other dorms, it can also impact and alienate its students’ social and individual identity development by promoting a hetero-normative living experience with defined gender roles and expectations. It can be a place of isolation and alienation if you do not fit the mold the student body single-sex living is intended for.

Don’t get me wrong — single-sex dorms can be great, but they are not for everyone, and I seriously think it’s time we stop shutting down the conversation and start exploring how these living arrangements construct a social expectation of masculine and feminine identities specific to Notre Dame, as well as perpetuate those that are not always inclusive of other students’ gender, racial and sexual identities. With incoming students at Notre Dame compulsorily assigned into single-sex dorms, they are deprived of the opportunity to select the living arrangements that are most ideal for their individual identity development, comfort and safety. Consequently, it sets up and maintains racial, gender and sexual identity inequities other students experience while living on campus. Who, then, is this system really intended to benefit?

I know many gay male students who moved off campus because they did not feel safe or included in their respective dorms’ male identities. The rules for a men’s residence hall are more relaxed and loosely enforced, making parties more likely to be held there and creating potentially less safe environments for women to drink in. With regard to the University’s Spirit of Inclusion, it is important and worthwhile to explore how on-campus living environments influence the social culture that either promotes or subverts inclusion for students from all walks of life. It would also be important to recognize how the structures of dorm life nurture or potentially threaten student safety and racial, gender and sexual identity on campus. Students already come from diverse backgrounds and living situations and often share bathrooms and living spaces with different kinds of people. What would really happen if Notre Dame had a few dorms dedicated to co-ed living? Whether it had gender-based floors is an entirely different discussion, but it would certainly change the nature of campus gender relations.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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