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Sharing a room, not a gender; UB offers option of coed housing

You'll have to excuse the mess in Samantha Hochstein's dorm room.

She lives with two guys.

And if you're more than a little surprised to hear guys and girls are sharing college dorm rooms these days, you're not the only one.

Hochstein's boyfriend wasn't crazy about the idea, either.

But more and more, the option of coed rooms – or "gender-neutral" housing – is being offered on college campuses, including the University at Buffalo, where Hochstein shares a room with her good friends Russell Oliver and Philip Wright.

"We were always like, ‘We should live together,'?" said Hochstein, 19, from Queens. "And then we could. So we did. It's as simple as that."

Their relationship, she said, is strictly platonic.

"It's not as big a deal as everyone thinks it is," said Oliver, 19, who is from the Albany area.

This semester is the first time UB is allowing students of the opposite sex to share a campus dorm room or apartment, offering the option to about 40 students – a small fraction of the several thousand UB students living in traditional quarters with roommates of the same sex.

"The primary intent was not to promote couple's housing," said Andrea Costantino, director of campus living.

Instead, it mainly began as a way to accommodate gay, lesbian and transgender students, who might feel more comfortable rooming with someone of the opposite sex. But it has certainly appealed to others, too, like Hochstein, Oliver and Wright.

The option may not be preferred by most students – or even most schools – but it has picked up steam since evolving on campuses in the early 2000s, said James Baumann, director of communications with the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International.

In fact, UB may be the first local institution to provide gender-neutral housing, but it's also offered at at least 88 other colleges and universities around the United States, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia and Syracuse, as well as other state schools, like Purchase and Geneseo State colleges, according to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute.

It's somewhat like the campus housing evolution during the early 1970s, when colleges around the country began moving from single-sex dormitories to coed residence halls, Baumann said.

"At the beginning, it was ‘Should we be doing this?'?" Baumann said, "and now the conversation is ‘How should we be doing this?'?"

Hochstein and Oliver met in Spanish class freshman year. Oliver and Wright, also 19, lived in the same campus dormitory. The three became fast friends.

Now sophomores, the three jumped at the chance to live together.

"You always want to room with the people you're closest to," said Hochstein, a business major, "and they just happened to be the ones I'm closest to."

But not everyone was so sure it was a good idea.

Oliver's grandmother was in disbelief.

Hochstein's parents were reluctant, but agreed.

Her boyfriend, Nick, back home in Queens, wasn't too happy, but she said he's warmed up to it.

Wright, meanwhile, may have neglected to tell his father that Hochstein – who goes by "Sam" – is actually a woman.

It's still early in the semester, but so far their social experiment is working out OK.

Their place in UB's Ellicott complex on the North Campus is one room with three beds. In the corner near the closet is a portable, tri-fold wall, which Hochstein slips behind when she wants to change clothes.

Wright, a computer science major from the Syracuse area, tends to be an early riser and is gone much of the day. Oliver, a communication major, is a night owl and rolls in late.

The shared gender-neutral bathroom down the hall has taken some getting used to.

"No one is too uptight about things. No one is too conservative about things," Oliver said. "That's why this is able to work."

The experience has been an education for all three.

Oliver and Wright have helped Hochstein answer that burning female question of what guys do in the privacy of their own rooms: Not a whole lot, she found out.
Meanwhile, Hochstein has taught Wright about hair products.

She'll let him know when his clothes don't match.

She reminds Oliver to pick up the room before playing Mario Kart on Wii.

"I joke that I'm going to make them the best husbands," Hochstein said. "Their future wives are going to love me."

While Hochstein, Oliver and Wright are glad they're rooming together, they admit gender-neutral housing is different from what they envisioned.

They expected the rest of the dormitory floor to have all the drama of the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore."

Instead, they said, it's pretty normal.

There's a male and female living together down the hall, and two guys who were supposed to live with their girlfriends before breaking up. The others are single rooms.

They think there are plenty of other male and female friends – like themselves – who would enjoy rooming together, but there's a perception gender-neutral housing is only for gay, lesbian and transgender students.

And if more women do decide to room with someone of the opposite sex, Hochstein said they need to be aware of the challenges.

Not one guy on her floor puts down the toilet seat.