Like many Yale first years, Camilla Emsbo ’22 was nervous about living in her first college suite with strangers. To ease the apprehension, she and her new suitemates, who are from Georgia, Oregon and Germany, called a meeting in their fourth-floor common room in Vanderbilt Hall and typed up a three-page document of ground rules for the suite.
The main cause of the uncertainty — one that does not apply to most first years — was the novelty of living in a mixed-gender suite, consisting of two girls and two boys.
Emsbo’s suite is one of approximately 40 first-year mixed-gender suites at Yale this year. Previously, only sophomores and upper-class students could elect mixed-gender suites, but Yale has quietly changed the policy to include incoming first years beginning with the class of 2022.
The policy was introduced in the Housing & Advising form sent to incoming first years last May. The survey asked about roommate preferences, bedtime routines and study habits, among other aspects relevant to the College Housing committees that place students.
On this year’s form, incoming students could also request an “all-female suite,” “all-male suite,” “mixed-gender suite” or “no preference.” Of the 1,578 incoming students, 87 requested mixed-gender and 465 selected the no-preference option, according to Camille Lizarríbar, Dean of Student Affairs.
Yale’s expansion of its mixed-gender suite option is part of an ongoing trend in higher education. In the Ivy League, the University of Pennsylvania was the first institution to offer mixed-gender suites for upperclassmen in 2005-2006, and extended the policy to first years in 2011. Like Yale, Harvard extended its policy to include first years beginning with the class of 2022.
When she first learned of Yale’s new policy, Emily Everlith ’19, a Davenport first-year counselor, was kneeling on the floor of Welch Hall cutting paper into the shape of Welch’s juice boxes to hang on the doors of the incoming first years.
“I didn’t know until August,” said Everlith. “There was no big announcement or anything. It wasn’t even mentioned in FroCo training.”
The new policy has yet to be reflected in Yale’s online Campus Housing and University Facilities regulations, which describes a mixed-gender housing option for only upper-level students.
Despite the lack of fanfare, the new option is the result of nearly a decade-long effort to make Yale housing more inclusive.
“When I first came in as a residential college dean, all housing was single gender,” said Lizarríbar. “Students made some serious requests to allow for mixed-gender housing for upper-level students, so we implemented it gradually.”
In the 2010-2011 school year, only seniors were allowed to live in mixed-gender suites. After a two-year trial, Yale extended the approval of gender-neutral housing to juniors, and then to sophomores in 2015-2016. Before then, students who identified outside of the gender binary were accommodated on an ad-hoc basis, and students had to choose between living with all men or all women.
“We kept getting feedback from upper-level students that they wanted to choose who they lived with, and we also heard this from first-year students,” Lizarríbar said. “In particular, we knew we had first-year students who were transgender or exploring their gender identities and that they found it hard to fill out a form that gave them just a binary option.”
During her first year as Dean of Student Affairs, she said, “we decided to start trying a few new things.” That included, in 2016-2017, introducing a number of mixed-gender floors on Old Campus, a break from the traditional single-gendered floors for first years, with males always on the first floor. The next year, she instituted a pilot program in which four residential colleges had mixed-gender suites for first years.
“That also went really well,” Lizarríbar said. “Throughout the process, we had a lot of input from the LGBTQ Center, students and the residential college deans and heads about how students actually live rather than just ideas. We progressively tried things out and that allowed us to troubleshoot in the meantime to identify any issues we might have.”
This year, troubles are few, despite rolling out the policy to all 14 residential colleges. Lizarríbar has heard no complaints from students but said she was contacted by six concerned parents before move-in day.
“Some were taken aback because their students had not told them what they had chosen on the housing survey, and some were concerned their students would get distracted,” Lizarríbar said. “A lot of the conversations involved normalizing the situation for them and letting them know that students socialize and live in very open settings where everyone gets to know everybody. They were already nervous about dropping off their kid for their first year, and this was just one more thing that made people feel uncertain.”
“I was impressed with how they handled those conversations and stayed supportive, even if they had initially been surprised and worried,” she continued.
Emsbo, whose four-person suite has two double rooms, one with female occupants and one with males, laughed when she recalled her initial apprehension.
“At first, I was a little bit alarmed, and my parents were a little bit alarmed,” said Emsbo. I was originally nervous about hygiene, them being neat and all the classic guy stereotypes, but it turns out that their room is twice as neat as our room, and they probably have better hygiene.”
“A lot of my fears did not have a real basis, and it’s been cool to get to know them,” she said, adding: “Rather than a bunch of girls coming in and out of the suite, I get to meet a wider range of people, which is really fun.”
Peter Steinmann ’22, a first year in Branford College and one of Emsbo’s suitemates, also considers his experience positive. “I really hope that first years next year will consider the co-ed suite,” he said. “We will definitely put our suite up to host people for Bulldog Days because I want to show them what it’s like. I think it’s so important for people to experience living with both genders. It helps us all see that the differences we thought were there, mostly aren’t.”
A transgender student in the class of 2020 said that she is impressed by Yale’s decision to extend mixed-gender suites to first years. When she was a first year, she chose to live with all women, as there was no opportunity then to live in a mixed-gender suite.
“I was very early in my transition then and felt a degree of shame at the thought of living with women as if I didn’t yet belong with them,” she said. “But there was also a fear of getting unsupportive male suitemates. Luckily, my entire suite was incredibly accepting, but there could have been much less fear and uncomfortableness if there was a mixed-gender, first-year suite policy back when I first came to Yale.”
“I don’t want any trans person to ever feel the same way I did — for their gender to be a factor for concern,” she continued.
To Lizarríbar, that’s the point. “At the end of the day,” she said, “it’s about giving students more freedom to live the way they want to.”
Phoebe Gould | firstname.lastname@example.org.