We Need To Reimagine the College Experience

Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Molly Kavanagh, questions whether or not the narrative of the “typical college experience” is healthy in relation to our expectations for housing.

When I was in my first year of college, I lived in a student accommodation complex managed by UCC. Less than a week after I moved in, a male maintenance worker let himself into my bedroom, completely unannounced, at nine o’clock in the morning while I was getting dressed. And since he didn’t knock, and reception didn’t email me beforehand to let me know that he’d be there, a complete stranger walked in on me while I had my tits out. So needless to say, my relationship with living in student accommodation was not off to a great start. 

I didn’t accidentally flash any maintenance men in my second-year apartment, which was a grubby little privately-owned complex in the city centre. I actually really enjoyed living in this apartment, because there was virtually no on-site security and our smoke alarms didn’t work, which meant myself and my roommates could indulge in our very sesh-oriented lifestyles for the entire year without any repercussions. I wasn’t even aware that the smoke alarms were broken until the end of the first semester; I just thought we were really, really lucky that no alarms went off when somebody decided to smoke a rollie at one of our prinks. When we finally did realize and reported it to the landlord, it was months before the faulty alarm was replaced. 

My only complaint, apart from the glaring safety concerns, was the fact that there was an eighty euro call out fee for if you accidentally locked yourself out of the apartment and needed to be let back in – and honestly, I don’t think this should be allowed, because it’s a safety concern in of itself. I left my keys on my bedside table one weekend night when none of my housemates were home, and since I’m one of the many students who doesn’t always have a spare eighty-euro on hand in case of an emergency, I had to sit in the twenty-four-hour internet cafe on Winthrop Street until my housemate returned in the morning to let me in.

One summer, I stayed in an apartment owned by a landlord who threatened to evict on a single day’s notice if I was ever caught with an overnight guest in my bedroom. In hindsight, I question the legality of this (One day’s notice for an eviction? Really?) But as a result, my boyfriend once had to clamber into my wardrobe to hide from the landlord when he paid a very early surprise morning visit to my bedroom door to discuss my rent. This is the same landlord that squeezed a double bed into a single bedroom, called it a double bedroom, and decided to charge 150 euro a week for it.

But sure look- it could be a lot worse, right? I could be homeless, so I’m one of the lucky ones. Any time I complain to my family about the absolute “shtate” of the Cork housing market, and the gall of some landlords to make students pay upwards of 600 euro a month for the absolute bare minimum, I’m told that it’s our fault. It’s our fault, because we’re legitimizing those high prices and poor living conditions by agreeing to pay the rent and live there, and maybe if us students just banded together in protest and just refused to book accommodation some year, landlords would be forced to lower their rent and take better care of the houses. 

This sentiment is anti-student- and I understand that sounds a bit ridiculous since university students aren’t an oppressed minority, but I don’t think it’s an over-exaggeration to say that students in higher education are sometimes treated as nuisances by their communities. Sometimes it feels as if our needs are continuously ignored, not even aforethought in the minds of our colleges or government representatives- as if our youth makes us impervious to the emotional toll that poor or unstable living conditions can have on people, and how that emotional toll is amplified by the fact that many students are now trapped in those poor living conditions due to lockdown and online classes. 

We’ve grown accustomed to being told that our student years will be financially and emotionally difficult- we’ll live off 10 cent Lidl ramen noodles while being under the most intense academic pressure of our lives, all within the confines of a shoebox bedroom the size of a walk-in closet- except this closet costs 600 euro a month. Oh, and you’re sharing the house with seven total strangers as well, who are also paying 600 euro a month, for the measly total of 4800 euro a month. But if you try to move out, your landlord (who owns four other houses) will cry: “But how will I pay my mortgage?” making you feel so guilty that you eventually relent and decide to stay. If you forget your keys, you essentially have to pay almost an extra week’s worth of rent to be allowed back in. You’ll be tempted to sleep outside instead. There was mold in the bathroom when you moved in and you’re pretty sure you saw a mouse run across the kitchen floor. The alternatives to living here are commuting four hours roundtrip in a country where it is notoriously difficult to get a driver’s license, or not attending college at all. Have fun! 

I don’t think that this should be normalized. I know that some students don’t actually care and would rather just relish in the experience- that’s what I did throughout college, but in hindsight, I was just making an attempt to romanticize my living conditions because I was unhappy and wanted to convince myself that no, this is a good thing, this is the real college experience. But even then, I eventually became quite stressed out and really longed for the days of consistent hot water for showers and a bedroom I could actually walk around in and a ceiling that wasn’t leaking and a smoke detector that actually kept me safe and a house that wasn’t full of strangers or maintenance men who didn’t know how to knock on doors. I wanted a safe, clean, quiet environment to do work in that didn’t put me in debt and leave me unable to afford food or leisure activities- is that really too much to ask for? Why are we teaching young people that it is?

This can’t be ignored when you’re engaging in discourse pertaining to the mental health of young people in Ireland. College students, particularly lonely first-year college students, are so emotionally vulnerable- the least we can do for them is ensure that they have a nice, reasonably priced home to relax in after a hard day of lectures. And maybe my mother was on to something – maybe something does need to be done to stop parasitic landlords from draining students of every penny they’re worth. But I think that responsibility should lie with the government since they care so much about mental health all of a sudden, and totally aren’t just weaponizing it in their opposition of enhanced lockdown restrictions. 

By perpetuating a narrative in which all of this is a part of the typical “student experience,” we’re making it so young people feel as if they’re missing out on something because they’re not suffering and being exploited. And I think students, and anybody looking for affordable living spaces in Cork, deserve a little more dignity than that.