International

Af­ford­able and so­cia­ble: Co-op liv­ing for stu­dents

Housing and food can be quite expensive in California. I've found a way to avoid going broke: I now clean, cook and party with 50 flatmates in shared accommodation run by the Berkeley Student Cooperative. Here's why I recommend the experience.

The biggest shared kitchen I've ever used (for details keep reading)! Photo: private

Before going on my semester abroad, I thought I would come back penniless. I had compared too many statistics on living costs on the internet. UC Berkeley's estimate on how much money you should budget for a year had not made me very optimistic either: According to them, you need 16,300 US dollars for nine months – that's more than 1,800 dollars per month just for food and accommodation! Don't get me wrong, you can easily spend that much or more in Berkeley, no problem. But I have found there to be ways to live on much less and have ended up paying under 1,000 dollars a month for food and housing combined.

Co-ops: A blessing unmatched

In the US, it's common to share a room with other students: with one person if you're lucky, but it can also be more. Initially, I wanted a room to myself – but after doing some research, I learnt that options here are limited and very expensive: a room can cost as much as 2,000 dollars per month. I happily passed that up!

I also thought about moving into student accommodation. But I quickly discarded that as well: most of the rooms are small, sparsely furnished with bunk beds and at the same time incredibly expensive, too. The contracts also include a mandatory meal plan, which means you get your meals in their cafeterias. Sounds good at first, but… let's just say that American university canteen food takes some getting used to. Fortunately, I had heard about the Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC) relatively early on while reading reports from previous HU exchange students and applied there.

The BSC runs several houses around Berkeley where students pay affordable rent. Each resident has five hours of chores per week: cooking, washing up, cleaning... In practice that's really not a big deal and in return you only pay around 900 dollars per month including (very good home-cooked) food. In Berkeley, that's unbeatable.

The view from my co-op home's roof. Photo: private

Never home alone: The perks of co-op living

I got my place in ‘Lothlorien’ – a two-house complex just a ten-minute walk from campus – after an uncomplicated application process and despite a lot of competition. Once I was in, living in a large community with shared rooms definitely took me a moment to get used to, but now I love it: from shared darts evenings to weekly binge-watching sessions and regular visits to one of the only good French bakeries in town (Fourneé, I highly recommend it!), I spend a lot of time in my room. And I actually enjoy always having someone to talk to there.

The other people in the house are also super easy-going and we throw really unique parties. The welcome party at the beginning of the last semester in particular will stay with me forever. Newcomers were guided through the house in groups and there were creative demonstrations: from mystery stories in the tree house to a (very authentic) simulated frat party – just like the ones you see in the movies.

Dinner time at Lothlorien. Photo: private

How to cook for 50 people?!

One of the great advantages of co-ops is that you don't have to worry about feeding yourself. Food in Berkeley is otherwise very expensive. Groceries can easily cost twice as much as in Germany, and going to Chipotle or Panda Express – which in my opinion are the best options – also costs 15 dollars. For the co-ops, on the other hand, the parent organisation BSC buys groceries at wholesale prices and the individual houses then order what they want from the head office. Residents can then cook their own meals from this and once a day a team of three students cooks for the whole house.

In my first semester, I cooked for 50 people once a week with two friends – always with music on full blast, naturally. There are no set recipes or anything, but each team can work spontaneously with whatever is on hand. At first, this was quite overwhelming for me. I had to rely on the others on my team who already had some experience of how best to tackle a project like this. The key is to put a big pot of rice or noodles on at the very beginning so that even if the rest goes wrong, people won't go hungry. Knowing that takes a lot of the pressure off and the rest comes naturally. I honestly don't think I'll cook such a huge risotto again in my life! The communal meal is a time for everyone to sit together and laugh – it's always fun.

23.05.2024

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