Like throwing darts at a map

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When choosing where I was going to study abroad, I was tempted more than once to simply throw a dart at a map. It always seemed to work in movies. Luckily, I didn’t ruin a perfectly good map.

Coming from a particularly gray and wet patch of the world called Ireland, I wanted sun and education at an affordable rate. That led me to Berkeley. But just when I thought I was free from more life-altering decisions, my parents reminded me that I had to find a place to live. Housing put me right back in front of the computer screen.

One of the problems international students face when they come to study in America is that they usually do not get a chance to check out the campus before arriving. The only places we see are those featured on university-run websites and areas 0f campus accessible via Google Street View. House-hunting is not so much about comparing dorms and apartments as it is about comparing the relative quality of one webpage over another.

Part of the problem lay in the options. In Ireland, you choose between an apartment or a room in residence halls. At Berkeley, options include rooms in units, co-ops, fraternities, International House and various apartments scattered around the Bay Area. Before I came to the United States, I had only the vaguest idea of what a fraternity was, and I got that from the movies. I had no idea what a co-op was.

I spent days with 20 different tabs open on my laptop screen before beginning to narrow the field. I found out I couldn’t live in a frat for another year, so they were the first to go. When Berkeley offered me a dorm room with two roommates, I decided to cut my losses with the units. I had never shared a room with one person for any extended period of time, let alone two guys I had never met.

Co-ops were the next on the list, but by the time I had gotten around to choosing where to live, most of them had filled up. I looked into Cloyne and Casa Zimbabwe, and at first, they seemed like fun places to live, full of interesting people — really cultured, I thought.

Then I read some online reviews. Now, we all know that  people who write reviews online are often those who are dissatisfied for one reason or another. Still, when one review calls a prospective home a drug den, you have to think twice. I didn’t apply to live in a co-op in the end. Maybe the reviews were wrong, but when you are more than 5,000 miles away, it’s hardly as though you can go and scout out the place before you move in. Under these circumstances, sometimes you just have to trust the Internet.

It’s exactly that mentality that initially put me off living in International House. One reviewer took particular glee in detailing how rowdy and loud I-House was, how awful the food was and how cramped the rooms were. The Internet was my only resource, but it’s usually only dissatisfied customers who review online. Cutting I-House out, I began to look at apartments.

Rent costs ended my apartment plans. None in my price range were within walking distance of campus. Those that I could afford were a whole BART journey away, and I hadn’t a clue what BART was at the time. How was I supposed to know if it would get me to class on time? Or if the neighborhood was safe? In the end, I even ruled apartments out.

That’s when I realized I had no tabs left. I had systematically, and quite carefully, ruled out all of my options. It is the ultimate problem with international education. The Internet has the wonderful knack of making everywhere seem like a hellhole. Having never been to Berkeley, having never spoken to a resident, how on Earth was I to choose where to live?

I didn’t throw a dart at a map. Instead, I pulled a name from a hat. A month later, I moved into International House on Piedmont Avenue. The rooms were small but not cramped. The food swings from being OK to pretty good, and I have never been able to tell the difference between rowdy and fun. I-House was also full of people like me — who had no better option but to trust housing would just work out.

Living at I-House has been a great experience, as living in dorm, a co-op or even an apartment might have been. Choosing where to live is never an easy call, but when your only criteria are what you can find online, sometimes there are worse ideas than throwing a dart at a map.

Contact Eoghan Hughes at [email protected].