On Campus

Roommates from hell

How to survive communal living in university

For countless college and university students living away from home, part of the adjustment to post-secondary life involves sharing close quarters with another newcomer on campus: the roommate. It’s daunting enough making the leap to the education big leagues. But for students heading to their temporary home away from home, excitement can be coupled with apprehension about living with a stranger and being in an unfamiliar environment.

“There’s always the worry or concern or anxiety from the students, ‘What if I don’t like my roommate? What if we don’t get along?’” said D’Arcy Ryan, director of residence life at Concordia University in Montreal. “But within our history, we’ve rarely had issues or problems with our roommates, and we chalk that up to a strong admission process in that we ask them for their characteristics and qualities of themselves, and then what they’re looking for in roommates.” That involves posing questions in advance about whether they’re a morning or night person, among the factors examined when matching roommates, Ryan said.

Whatever their personal habits and preferences, it’s critical that students are upfront in their applications, said Linda Fiore, author of “The College Roommate from Hell — Skills and Strategies for Surviving With a Problem Roommate” (Atlantic Publishing). “Whatever the application asks for — your likes, your dislikes, what kind of music you like, what kind of schedule you keep — by not being honest in that section is just going to set you up for problems down the road,” she said from Philadelphia.

Fourth-year Concordia student Morgan Todd recalled his initial feelings of anxiety and nervousness moving from northern Saskatchewan to Montreal for school and the transition to communal living. Now in his penultimate year of study in business administration, Todd still lives on campus and offers support to residence newcomers. “I think the biggest thing about having a roommate is number 1, you don’t have to like them,” said the 21-year-old. “It’s great if you do, and it’s great if you become friends, but I think at the end of the day, you guys don’t have to like each other — you just have to live with each other for the year.”

Todd said people are “really respectful,” and he hasn’t been confronted with many issues. “Every once in a while, someone would rather study and their roommate’s getting ready to go out or something like that, just more of a noise thing,” he said. “Most people get along, and if they don’t, they usually hang out with their other friends.”

Todd said students are typically advised to talk to their roommate first to sort out any problems. “We always try to get them to solve their own issues because that’s how it’s going to be once they’re past residence. That’s how it is in the real world.”

Ryan said it’s usually following the “honeymoon stage,” after the first couple of weeks, when problems and differences typically tend to arise. “It’s the little sort of idiosyncrasies you thought were either endearing or cute or ‘That won’t bother me’ that they’ll eventually start to get onto your nerves and frustrate you,” he said. “What we try and do is get them to have open means of communication and dialogue and sit down with each other, because they’re going to be spending eight-and-a-half months basically together, so they have to define their own boundaries and limits within their own confined space.”

But just how do students go about breaking the ice in the effort to establish those ground rules? Fiore writes that while it’s OK to have initial contact through email, roommates should try to chat by phone to get to know one another and to discuss expectations, habits, lifestyles and schedules. Meeting up prior to school starting and move-in day can help ease potential awkwardness and may help make the transition to shared living smoother.

Suggested conversation starters include the personal — inquiring about their family, why they chose the school, outside interests — and the more mundane, like comparing lists of things they plan to bring so they don’t end up with two microwaves or blenders in the room. Questions about expectations could include whether they’ll be studying more in the room, tech lab or library, if they’re OK with cleaning the room once weekly, and letting the roommate know they can’t concentrate with the TV on.

Fiore, who is also director of college relations and external affairs at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, writes that sharing a room with somebody is like a relationship or marriage, requiring compromise and flexibility to make it work.

“If you get a bad vibe from the very beginning, unless it’s something really obvious like they’re using drugs, then try to ride it out, because you can live with somebody in a dorm room and not socialize with them,” she said. “And then again, it’s a matter of mutual respect, too.” When it comes to visitors staying over, Fiore suggests individuals find out the policies for how many guests are allowed in the room and whether overnight guests are permitted. “Sometimes, it’s going to have to be your responsibility to have that conversation with your roommate if there are no set guidelines if a friend can stay overnight.”

Fiore notes that there are many lifetime friendships that have emerged from roommate pairings, so it can work to a student’s advantage to build these relationships. What’s more, when there are differences, like religious or cultural beliefs, it can open the door to discussion and a world of diversity some may not have previously been exposed to. “I think that living with one or two or sometimes three other roommates that may come from different backgrounds is a win-win in the long run, but it’s one of those things the student is not going to see the benefit of that until they’re ready to walk out the door of the college or later in life,” she said.

“It is like a marriage in a lot of ways,” she added. “The good thing is you’re done with it in four years. You can get out, and at no cost. You’re out of the relationship.”

The Canadian Press

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