Freshmen! Get Ready for ... Coed Dorm Rooms

updated 02/26/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

Freshman Paige Walz glanced around at her new dorm room and stopped. "This," she thought, "is kinda weird."

On one bed were her bright pink sheets and purple pillow. Good so far. On the other side of the room? Oversized basketball jerseys and sneakers, also quite large. Lots of gray and black clothes. About then, Walz, 19, had her omigod moment: "I'm rooming with a guy!" she realized. "This has to be a mistake."

It wasn't. At Walz's school, the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, as well as at dorms on at least 16 other colleges around the country, the walls have fallen. Under a policy typically known as gender-neutral housing, institutions–including Colorado College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Riverside–are now allowing students in specially designated dorms to pick their own roommates with no questions asked or to opt for a random assignment with a stranger. "A lot of my friends at other schools are like 'What? No way,'" says Jessica Hicks, 20, a junior who shares a room with her 20-year-old boyfriend at Ohio's Oberlin College, which expanded its program to four dorms this year. "They wish it was like that at their school."

Denise Nelson, director of residential life and residential education at Southern Maine, where 50 students on two floors at Philippi Hall live in coed arrangements, says the policy shift originated in 2005 with a desire to accommodate students who consider themselves transgender, but adds that parents of many other students have also been supportive. "One parent asked if her daughter could live with her brother. Another wanted her daughter to live with her fiancé on campus," says Nelson. "We really feel this helps us meet the needs of all our students." And, of course, cohabitation has been an unofficial fact of life in some college dorms for decades.

Clearly, though, mix-and-match living arrangements are not for all. "My dorm room is where I would change clothes and shower," says Maggie Crowley, 20, a junior at Northwestern University who opted to live in her sorority house over the dorms. "I think it would be kind of awkward." Surprisingly, concerns about sex and harassment have rarely entered into the debate over whether to allow co-ed rooms, according to officials at several participating colleges. At Harvard University and the University of Chicago, both of which are considering the co-ed option, the big questions include how many rooms to set aside and whether to replace a roommate who drops out with someone of the same sex or the opposite sex.

For Southern Maine's Hadje Esmiller and Ashley Franck, 22-year-old seniors who have been dating since high school, the opportunity to share a room at college has been like a trial run for a more lasting arrangement. "We're best friends, we know each other's habits," says Hadje, an accounting major. The pair do laundry together but don't have to worry about cooking, since they eat their meals in a dining hall. Ashley, a psychology major from Gorham, has made their two-room suite cozy with a comforter, curtains and shams she sewed herself. "This is our home," she says.

The pairings have typically worked out, and even Walz, who knew beforehand that two of her roommates in the two-bedroom suite would be guys, enjoyed living with sneaker-wearer Keith Coombs. "He was really good for giving guy advice," she says. The two still share the suite, but since their other suitemates–a dating couple–broke up and moved out, now they have their own rooms. Walz liked having a male roomie. As long as "the guy wasn't sketchy or weird, I would do it again," she says. "Guys are laid-back, and there's no drama. I like that."

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