Unlocking the mystery of Cal student housing

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As a brand new freshman standing in the Unit 3 entryway, I had heard every “dormitory horror story” in the book. That summer, everyone from my older cousin in Connecticut to the barista at Starbucks felt the need to recap — in vivid detail — their own first-year experiences in college dorms. By the time I stepped into room 701, I was essentially expecting to live in a rat-infested, 6-by-6 box with breakdown-era Britney Spears as a roommate and no access to clean running water. While I’m willing to admit I might have been overreacting just a bit, most (if not all) incoming freshmen have some doubts about dorm life before move-in day rolls around.

Fast forward to one year later, and I will proudly tell any future Golden Bear that living in the residence halls was by far the most memorable experience of my time at Cal thus far. So much so that I’ll once again be receiving my room key alongside hundreds of other luggage-toting students for the 2014-15 school year. This time, however, I’ll be arriving at Martinez Commons older and wiser — when it comes to dorm-room survival, that is. While I can’t promise anyone a totally seamless transition, here are a couple of hints and tips that I wish I would have had in my pocket the first time around. Disclaimer: For the standard storage space and other practical organizational advice, I suggest leafing through any of the Bed, Bath & Beyond or Container Store catalogs that have no doubt piled up over the summer months. Instead, let me dive into the challenging situations that nobody tells you about but you will come across. Trust me, this is the stuff you won’t find on Pinterest.

First, let’s talk about the very first thing you will receive when you finally arrive at your new home. Your room key is your lifeline. Treat it as such from the moment it’s handed to you, and you’ve already knocked out about 20 percent of the embarrassing, frustrating mistakes you could, and will, make in your first semester. I’ve seen keys tied around people’s wrists, dangling from fuzzy pink lanyards and even zipped up inside the elusive fanny pack or two on campus. These students may provoke the occasional eyebrow-raise while hurrying into Dwinelle for lecture, but trust me, you’ll be cursing their genius when you’re desperately calling your RA to let you into your room at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Even when you’re absolutely certain that you’re only running three doors down to borrow your floormate’s laundry detergent and will be back in .3333 seconds, bring your key. I guarantee there will come the day when your midterm paper is due and the infamous Berkeley wind decides to politely shut the door behind you on your way out.

Next, I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to take advantage of all the activities, handouts and advice I took from my RA. Within the first two days in the units, all preconceived notions of my RA as the aloof, police chief-esque senior were far behind me. It will be tempting to try to duck past RAs as they round up the floor for an impromptu round of icebreakers or hand you yet another Welcome Week flyer. But those of us who set aside our egos and made the effort to play the Name Game three times in one day or take up the RA’s offer for a free meal at Crossroads ended up getting the most out of living in the residence halls. You’ll be thankful that you did when you need a last-minute Math 1B study buddy or can’t stand to sit alone at Cafe 3 for brunch.

If there’s one other scenario virtually every first-year student in the dorms comes across, it’s homesickness. Even those of you who are chomping at the bit to move out and finally earn your freedom will come across one day when college life suddenly becomes unexpectedly overwhelming. While I don’t recommend crawling under the covers of your new twin XL bedding and missing the next week of lectures, your dorm will become your comfort space in the scary moments when you just feel like hiding. As soon as possible after move-in day, figure out how you can make your room or, in most cases, your half or third of the room as cozy and as “you” as possible. Whether it’s with a giant Pillow Pet — no, you won’t be the only one — or a packet of microwaveable hot cocoa, give your new room a chance to become a “happy place.” And, if all else fails, it only takes a stroll down your hall to find a potential companion for a late-night boba pick-me-up or a quick pep talk.

Unfortunately, I can’t list every possible position you may find yourself in as a freshman living in the dorms. I can’t promise you that you won’t feel lost at some moments or wonder how to get out of a sticky situation, but the best advice I can give is to go in with absolutely no expectations. Sure, there were a lot of surprises — some more welcome than others — for me when I arrived at Cal, but each and every one of them only makes me look back today that much more confident in my decision to join the Golden Bear family.

Contact Ariel Hayat at [email protected].