Living the collective life

When I first got the email that I had been accepted to UC Berkeley in 2010, I was obviously ecstatic. I had a free period and immediately went to go tell an English teacher who had gone here, and the one piece of advice he gave me that has defined my UC Berkeley experience was that I should check out the co-ops as a housing option.

On my first Cal Day, I searched for the Berkeley Student Cooperative booth and when the next house tours would be. I visited four houses on Northside: Stebbins Hall, Cloyne Court, Kingman Hall and Casa Zimbabwe, and eventually decided on Stebbins as the house I would move into when I started my first semester.

It has been four years since then, and I haven’t left Stebbins in the subsequent semesters and summers. Over this time period, I’ve come to see my fellow house members as a family that I can play endless rounds of Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity with, dance on tables to Beyonce with and generally just explore the unique co-op community with. I’ve cooked for more than 80 people, gained a newfound love for vegetables I did not even know existed and met some of the kookiest and smartest students at UC Berkeley.

More than anything, I found my niche amongst the co-op hipsters, hippies and academics, and looking back, I don’t think I could have lived in any other kind of community. Coming into college, I knew right off the bat my personality would not mesh well with frat life, and the dorms were way too expensive to feel comfortable living in, despite the advice I received from advisers and other students alike to live in them for at least a year and then explore housing options from there.

It was sound advice — many of my current co-op friends started out in one of the units and still remain incredibly close with their floormates — but I didn’t have much in the way of nonloan aid, and the aforementioned English teacher had mentioned that the co-ops were cheaper than the dorms by a long shot, something both I and my parents were delighted to hear.

So I immediately flocked to Stebbins in my freshman year, which was both invigorating and frightening as 17-year-old me immediately noticed everyone I was living with was at least three or four years older than me. On top of that, I was a spring admit and was taking classes through UC Berkeley Extension, so found myself locked in my room most of the time, doing homework and missing out on what makes co-ops so much fun: the people.

It took some serious comfort zone-breaching on my part to actually approach anyone I lived with, but once I opened up, I found that they were not the unapproachable, too-cool-for-you kids I thought they were. My fellow co-opers were nerdy, worldly and unlike anyone I had ever met; some were from such far-off lands such as England and Ireland and Italy — sad, I know, but it was my first time ever interacting with non-Americans who weren’t Japanese exchange students or family in Egypt — others I rarely saw because they were strict night owls. I made a concerted effort to go from the kid who wasn’t even old enough to buy cigarettes, let alone drink, and spent all of his time in his room to a full member of this house filled with wonderful and interesting people with whom I could really connect.

Over the next three years, I have seen friends graduate and move out and on with their lives — a position I will be in soon — only to have new friends enter the community and, like me, revel in the possibilities and the friendships. What makes any co-op a home for its inhabitants is how they make a house culture all their own, whether it be through using the walls as a canvas for their imaginations to run wild, deciding whether to spend house funds on a ball pit — something that has been discussed at length in my own house — or crowd into our TV room for the Sunday-night premieres of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men.”

I’ve learned how to live semicommunally with about 60 other people who are either old pros at it or still don’t know how to properly wash a plate — which we work around — the difference between kale and chard and the best places to explore on Northside — at the top of the list is Berkeley Rose Garden.

Above all, living in a co-op has taught me that it’s OK to wave my weird flag high; my UC Berkeley experience has been my co-op experience. At the Berkeley Student Cooperative graduation Sunday, I received a “diploma” that had three words that best describe the co-ops for me: exhilarating, interesting and life-changing. I can say with all certainty that it was in a co-op that I became the weirdo I am today.

Youssef Shokry joined the Daily Cal in fall 2013 as a senior before becoming the lead literature reporter. He is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.