Revamped London Program Presents Challenges for Students
Living abroad is not always easy, as the first of students to complete the overhauled Dannenburg Oberlin-in-London program discovered.
The students, the first to enroll in the program following its one-year hiatus, were also the first to have to deal with the financial and organizational burdens of finding housing on their own.
The program was suspended last year in an attempt to allay financial difficulties but was quickly resumed after tremendous protest by students and faculty. In order to reinstitute the program amid persisting financial concerns, it had to be restructured. Changes included cuts in the outing budget, subsidies for faculty airfare and most noticeably, student housing practices.
According to Politics Professor and Chair of the London Program Committee, Marc Blecher, “The way the program used to run was very different from any other London program we know of. It was very Oberlin in that it did what no other college did; we gave a tremendous subsidy to student housing in London.”
Under the old program students would pay the same amount for housing as they would for a dorm in Oberlin. Thus $100,000 a year subsidized the difference in price between an Oberlin dorm and a flat in London along with the administrative costs of a secretary who arranged housing.
“We were very concerned when we were making cuts that the program remain accessible to all Oberlin students regardless of economic resources,” Blecher said.
Without this subsidy, students are now responsible for arranging their own housing as well as covering its entire cost, minus financial aid. To help cover London’s high cost of living, the “student financial aid package is increased for the London semester on an index including the cost of living and rent in London,” said Blecher. Raising financial aid, however, often means an increase in loans — not only grant money.
Housing options open to students include dorms, rooms and home stays, but most students choose to rent flats. There are also a number of ways in which a student can secure housing assisted by the program’s in-London director. Unlike under the old program, however, Program Director Donna Vinter merely aids students in house hunting and does not directly set it up.
Vinter commented that despite “very good advice given to students by my predecessor, Gwyneth Love, about the pros and cons of different housing options and how difficult finding your own flat might turn out to be,” it is necessary “to continue to work to make sure students have all the advanced information they need to make informed choices about whether they want to go down the road of finding their own place to live or whether they want to choose a prearranged housing option. And also we need to keep on top of how the market may be changing.”
“After [students] are accepted, we bombard them with all sorts of information and advice on how to find a flat, including the names of reputable estate agencies who we’ve used in the past,” said Blecher.
Some students arrange their housing beforehand over the Internet, while some prefer to wait until they arrive in London so that they can see their future homes firsthand.
College junior Rachel Allen, who recently returned from London, recalled, “I found an apartment through a rental agency. I started house hunting in May or April and secured housing [for the fall semester] by June.”
Allen continued, “The people who started searching for housing once they arrived were less pleased with the housing they found.”
Ashley Gorham, College junior, chose to look for a flat herself instead of choosing one of the locations offered by estate agencies in hopes that she could find a location that would allow her to be more integrated in the city.
“We were one of two groups that found our own housing and we were homeless for a week,” said Gorham, jokingly referring to the week she spent at a hostel.
Although finding housing was a difficult process, Gorham admitted, “We ended up finding a good deal.”
“Ultimately I understand the program was in transition and there were going to be bumps, especially housing. But overall, it is a great program and they do a lot to help you,” said Gorham.
This semester, another difficulty in the housing process has shown itself. Estate agents are asking for all of the rent money up front. Although some students were aware of this problem before, it has become almost universal this semester and has definitely been stressful for some students. There have been no reports, however, of students unable to overcome this burden.
Current students have reacted to the housing challenge similarly to those from last semester.
Ezra Spier, College sophomore, said, “We must have called dozens of estate agents and landlords. Few were interested in dealing with short-term four month leases, but there were still some who would.”
Spier and his roommates ended up renting a flat that they’d found on www.craigslist.org, rented by a landlord who had previously worked with Oberlin students.
“Searching for a flat was a difficult and humbling experience, but now… I’m glad I went through the process. Oberlin just isn’t designed to teach students street skills, but opportunities like this help students develop them on their own,” Spier said.
Another current student, who wished to remain nameless, had a similar view in his housing situation. He said, “The support staff in London was excellent, helpful, welcoming, supportive and really caring.”
After finding a suitable and reasonably priced flat, the student said, “Even if it wasn’t the most fun experience, it was a really great one to have — in the same way that co-ops are really valuable experiences. Oberlin is so isolated from reality sometimes it’s refreshing to have experiences like these.”
Regarding the housing situation Blecher said, “It’s not good enough to say everyone else does it, but it works. It got solved, it always gets solved.”
He continued, “When [the students] solve it, they feel great. It actually is a real learning experience about London.”