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Day 3 in a Month: College Roommate Tips From Over a Quarter Century of Experience

Find me and my freshman roommates.

Find me and my freshman roommates.

My freshman and sophomore years of college are the only time in my life I shared a room with someone until I was married. That is a combined total of 18 months, with four different individuals. Hardly seems like something that would make one an expert. I developed my expertise by working in residential life (student housing) on five campuses, in three states, beginning in the ’80s and ending with a final group of tenants in 2012.

Recently my own two children have returned to their respective campuses, after a summer of looking forward to resuming residence with the roommates they lived with last year. I take little credit for the success of their roommate relationships, though they did hear the occasional story growing up of roommate conflicts and resolutions.

For those of you new to living with someone, I will offer some advice for making the most of shared living in an unusually small space:

  1. Lay some ground rules in the beginning but do so with some flexibility. Don’t say “I don’t care” about the things you really do care about as a means of seeming accommodating. On the other hand don’t approach the conversation with your expectations etched in stone.
  2. Your roommate doesn’t have to be your best friend but you do need to have a mutual respect for each other.
  3. When something bothers you, don’t ignore it and expect it to resolve itself. Years of experience tells me that it won’t change on its own. Annually, it was about six weeks in that my schedule would begin filling up with “roommate conflicts”. After listening to whatever offense was making life in their room impossible I would ask “Have you said anything?” and the majority of the time the answer was “No”. Then I would inquire as to why the person would stop doing something if they were in fact unaware the behavior was bothersome; never taking the trash out, not cleaning up their hair from the floor near where they styled it, turning on the TV first thing in the morning when their roommate could sleep two more hours…The offenses vary but the solution is the same, address it!
  4. Don’t complain to your parents if you are not willing to sit down with your roommate to talk over the issues. On more than one occasion I had to explain to anxiety ridden parents that I could not simply walk by and pretend I observed some perceived infraction taking place.
  5. Communicate with your roommate, even if you are not “friends”. Let them know when you plan to be gone for a night or a weekend, not because they need to know what you do but as a courtesy. If something were to go wrong and you (or they) were truly missing, that’s pretty important information.
  6. Give as much as you take. If your roommates family takes you out for a meal when they are in town, it’s nice for you to share the bounty of your care package from your relatives.
  7. Remember that a lot of what you learn at college takes place outside the classroom. You are going to be in relationships the rest of your life, with partners, coworkers, volunteers, church members and it’s best to learn how to get along with people who are not like you.
  8. You don’t always have to be right or have your way. Just because you make your bed first thing each morning does not mean that your roommate is required to or that their failure to is in any way a reflection on you.
  9. Give space. In tiny surrounding there are times when it’s obvious that a phone call or situation may be personal and important. Learn the cues and graciously allow your roommate some privacy. Ideally, they will reciprocate.
  10. Keep things in perspective. It’s nine months. Utilizing communication (and in some situations air freshener) you should be able to survive most roommates. If you are in danger or your roommate is into something that you can’t tolerate, then seek guidance on how to resolve it.

My freshman year I shared a double room with two other women, yep three of us in a room for two. Our personalities and pastimes were very different. We were assured at the beginning of the year that we could move to a double by Christmas break. When the opportunity arose none of us wanted to move and we resided together the remainder of the school year. Over thirty years later we remain friends.

My sophomore year, due to a housing shortage (see last paragraph) I was not assigned a room until about 10 days before fall quarter began. My roommate was a building receptionist, so she was allowed to move in early. I arrived to a room filled with homemade lofts and red shag carpeting that gave the unit a “collegiate brothel” feel. A love seat was squeezed under the loft and a picture of the Metrodome at night (it had just been built) hung on the wall. The Metrodome was torn down in the last year which reminds me how old I am and how disposable “state of the art” facilities have become. But I digress. She worked an early morning desk shift several days a week and would get up and shower before going to work. The in and out did not bother me, it was the early morning fogging of the room with FDS (feminine deodorant spray) after returning from the shower that I am confident has left me with some sort of latent lung damage. I never said anything about it, because seriously, how could you? She began dating a boy on our floor almost immediately (Scott). He was loud and crass, those being his good qualities and she would get jealous when he sat and talked to me while she burned her hair into damaged ringlets she would later comb out. The most annoying habit she had was buying ham salad from the local deli and eating it off of her fingers, then smoothing it around the container with the fingers she had just licked it off of and then offering it to me with a “want some?” No, not for the next 30 years will I ever want some, I can still hear the disgusting noise of this activity.

I was gone three weekends that quarter. The first one I came back to $20 cash missing out of my drawer, which was a lot more money in 1982 than it is now and small “spit balls” on things on the walls that were mine, picture frames on my desk etc. When I asked for an explanation she said “Scott and his friends were here and someone spilled a beer on the carpet and then we cleaned it up with toilet paper and then they started just flinging it around.” The weekend of Halloween I came back to find out that she had loaned several pairs of MY shoes to her friends for costumes. The other weekend my neighbors came to me after and said “We came over about 2 o’clock to turn off your boom box that she had cranked and close your door.” She had spent the night elsewhere. The last straw for me was laying on the loveseat covered in blankets while running a 102 degree fever and Scott pinning me down and giving me hickeys. Really? What a catch! It was shortly after that she told me she was moving out at the end of the quarter (cue Hallelujah Chorus) that her and Scott were getting their own place off campus.  Scott’s mom found out about two weeks into that new living situation and their little love nest was broken up.

For the remaining two quarters I lived with a transfer student from another college who was bright, witty and we were well matched to each other. Not only were we roommates but we became friends and socialized quite a bit together as well. After that year I became an RA for a couple of years, then an Assistant Hall Director and upon graduating began my professional career in helping college students navigate the pitfalls of roommates.

Friendship and lifelong relationships are certainly a possibility but survival is the primary objective. Good luck to everyone who is still in that “honeymoon” phase of living together with their new college roommate!

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