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Surviving the roommate crisis

By Sal Hepatica

BOXES ARE SCATTERED all over the floor, contents spilling out. The closet is packed with clothes, and the rest are hanging on the bathroom shower rod. Stereos, TVs, CD storage boxes, and computers crowd desktops, dressers, and even the beds. A futon, piled with boxes and clothes, blocks the door open. Four college freshmen survey the utter confusion, each thinking, "Now what do we do?"

The months of college preparation are over and it's finally moving day! This fall, 75 percent of college freshmen will move into dorms, the majority living with roommates for the first time in their lives. Strangers thrown together from different worlds, they need to adjust to each other's quirks, habits, and schedules without driving each other crazy.

Adjusting to roommates and dorm life is easier when expectations are realistic, explains Paul Bradley, dean of residence life at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minn. "So many times we've seen students come into the dorm believing their roommates will be their friends for life, their best buddies. The roommates, on the other hand, may see the room only as a place to sleep, since they already have a social network. Then it's a mess; there's hurt, confusion, and tension."

While some colleges attempt to match roommates based on information gathered on housing forms (majors, hobbies, regions of the country), a match is never guaranteed. It's not unusual to end up with roommates who are stiff and structured, social butterflies, and nose-in-the-book academics--all in one room.

A key to successful adjustment is communication, Bradley says. "Communication is vital to any relationship, even roommates. They need to share openly on such issues as cleanliness, visitation, music, study time, and lights out."

"It's best to talk about issues early," says Joy Santee, a 2000 Northwestern graduate who lived in residence halls for two years. "Agree on perimeters and talk through issues before they become problems and get out of control."

A big part of the college experience is learning effective confrontational skills and initiating communication when there are problems. Bradley says most students don't like to confront others. "Often they try to live with the problem or ignore it, but it can go too far and usually someone gets hurt," he says.

Common aggravations include sloppiness, division of provisions, visitors, personal space, music tastes, and quiet time. When problems arise, try to solve them as a room first, Bradley explains. "Don't beat around the bush or drop hints. Talk as a room, not belittling or ganging up on anyone. Be factual. Set or reiterate policies. But if problems persist, you may need to ask the residence assistant to act as a liaison."

However, incompatibility does happen. Be honest, yet tactful, with your roommates as to why you are leaving. "Ask what their plans are, because others could be thinking the same thing, which could eliminate the problem and you won't have to move," Bradley says. "Give some advance notice. It's rude to announce at the last minute you're moving out. It leaves others with guilt, confusion, and a feeling of failure."

WHETHER it's your first roommate arrangement or your fifth, Bradley and Santee do have practical advice to make dorm life harmonious.

1. Practice common courtesy when it comes to visitation. Establish policies or schedules, setting aside nights for quiet and study time. "This is where having a calendar on the message board really comes in handy," Bradley emphasizes. "It minimizes surprising the roommate who comes home at midnight after a full day of classes and work wanting to get some sleep only to find a party going on. Planning ahead makes it possible for arranging other places to study or spend the night."

2. Keep a balance of rights and compromise. Be flexible, but not at the expense of your studies or health. Honor your roommates' rights to guests and socializing; after all, they are paying for the room, too.

3. Express issues and develop tactful, effective confrontation skills. Such skills will pay off in the future.

4. When you or a roommate has a car, set policies on borrowing the car or giving rides, taking into consideration gas, mechanical expenses, and scheduling.

5. Set a policy about borrowing each other's clothes to avoid problems when clothing is borrowed without asking.

6. Try not to get caught in the middle of roommates' family issues.

AS FOR THE STATE of confusion and bulging dorm room on moving day, avoid this by contacting your roommates ahead of time to see who is bringing what (furniture, electronic equipment, recreational items).

Contact the college to determine the size of the room, what furnishings are provided, and the number of electrical outlets. Wait to bring seasonal items such as winter clothes and skis until holiday breaks to avoid overcrowding.

And remember, you aren't the only one who is homesick, disoriented, or undergoing roommate conflict. There is help available, so seek it through your RA, housing coordinator, or, better yet, your roommates!

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From the August 16-22, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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