A birds eye view of the student cooperative courtyard. Showing residents resting in the sun.

A Different Style of University Life

Image: Canberra Student Housing Co-operative

New friends, lovers, knowledge, and experiences… Independence from parents or guardians, and the first taste of real ‘adult’ freedom. We often associate these exciting dreams with the allure of university for students, along with many other dreams about life after school. As it turns out, the hype of these dreams can disguise some of the more challenging aspects of student life. New students often discover a whole new world of stress, spawned by a hard-to-manage blend of study, work, and trying to maintain an active social life. On top of this, students often struggle with arranging accommodation in an increasingly expensive and competitive market.

The Canberra Student Housing Co-operative (CSHC) seeks to address this last issue, though in reality it often assists its members with all of these concerns and more. I have been living at the CSHC for the last six months, and in that time have discovered an unparalleled network of support. The Co-op (or its fond abbreviation, the CSHC) is an internally-managed organisation with the intention of providing safe, affordable housing and a supportive and empowering community to students in Canberra. Members (read: residents) contribute to the community by sharing the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, gardening and generally caring for each other. The Co-op currently houses 29 students, spread across five self-contained units in Havelock House, each with a set of shared bathrooms, showers, a lounge, dining room and kitchen. Each member has one key to their individual room and another key which gives them access to all of the communal spaces in the five units. Never before have I lived in a house with five lounges and 28 housemates, and it is hard to fully explain the unique quality of this experience without writing a book. Nevertheless, I will try to give a taste of what the co-operative lifestyle offers to those who live here.

To me, the most defining feature of Co-op life is communal dinner. From Monday to Thursday, we have an opt-in roster to cook and share meals in our common areas. We sign up for one night in a fortnightly cycle, with three to four people sharing the cooking each night. All the other residents merely show up to dinner and sit down. This means that we have seven nights a fortnight where we don’t have to worry about cooking food, or trying to find a cheap dinner option elsewhere. Instead, we are provided with three healthy dishes to choose from, with all of our dietary requirements catered for. In addition, we have the opportunity to share a meal with 20+ other people several nights a week.

I believe this is one of the most powerful bonding experiences you can have with another individual or group. People associate food sharing with families, and it is a symbol of trust and mutual respect. Other species of social animals base their priority in eating on a hierarchy within the group. At the Co-op, we have a non-hierarchical structure per the way we approach our dinners. We start by putting aside plates of food for those who can’t make it on time, ensuring they will have food for when they get home from other commitments. After that everyone else has free reign to help themselves, sit around and share conversation. I find that this is also a perfect time for people to de-stress and debrief in a supportive environment from tough days at uni, work or other troubles in their lives.

The support that the Co-op offers is another key part of how we operate. We maintain a Safe(r) Space policy, which endeavours to ensure the comfort of all people to express themselves, regardless of sex, gender identity, race, cultural background, sexuality, sexual practices, religion, or physical or mental ability. This extends to the events we run (including a once-per-semester party that has a tendency to get pleasantly wild) and our internal structures for addressing grievances between residents. There is also an incredible culture of mutual assistance between residents for each other’s personal endeavours. Any Co-oper needing support, whether it be at pro-refugee rallies, exhibitions of their musical or artistic expression, or simply needing to borrow a car or a bicycle, has an immediate network of housemates to call upon. This extends to some of our organisational structures, where we pool some of our resources to further the ends of the group. We bulk buy a variety of essentials, from cleaning products to weekly vegetables. The purchasing power we achieve in this way allows us to buy items which would otherwise be far beyond the means of a student sharehouse. A nice Dyson vacuum costs each of us approximately 12 dollars to purchase. And, since the likelihood of 29 people needing to vacuum simultaneously is pretty slim, it generally works out that communal items like this are available when you need them.

There is one more thing about the Co-op which consistently blows my mind. This co-operative, which does ever so much for its members, was conceptualised and founded by a handful of friends, has been maintained for the past six years, entirely by the students who have lived here. In that time, it has quintupled in population, and evolved internal structures to deal with new problems, further its aims, and help maintain its principles. We run this for the benefit of each other, our community, and for our own health, happiness, and security.

This is only a fraction of what I could say about CSHC, how it is managed, what it achieves, or the amazing and diverse humans who I am proud to call my friends and housemates. Nevertheless, I hope it helps you glean an understanding of why we choose to live in a co-operative.

If you would like to find out more about the Canberra Student Housing Co-operative, check out our website http://www.csh.coop/ or FB page (feel free to shoot us a message), come and talk to us at the next ANU Market Day, or email us at contact@csh.coop.