Imagine your college roommate approaches you and says he has scabies. Most likely your first response would be, “What are scabies, and why would I care?” He then proceeds to tell you the common name for scabies is “bed bugs,” which he got because he never washed his bed sheets. They are highly contagious and will require you to follow specific steps to ensure you do not become infected. Although you might be hoping this is just another urban legend, it’s not. It’s only one of many scenarios in college you might have to deal with when living with a roommate.
As a college freshman, you will have to deal with many “firsts”: the first time living away from home, the first time having to do your laundry by yourself, the first time managing your own money and, for many, the first time having a roommate. Living with a sibling is one thing, but when you are forced to live with a complete stranger for a year, it can be a little intimidating. The seemingly small and inconspicuous issues can be exaggerated into major catastrophes, turning your first year into a nightmare. On the other hand, your first roommate may become a lifelong friend.
Sometimes students’ expectations can be too high, thinking you will automatically click with your first roommate—but just because you’re Facebook friends doesn’t mean you will become BFFs with your new roommate. I have known students who go on to room with the same person they were matched with their freshman year for many years; I have also had to mediate heated roommate conflicts within 24 hours of when the students arrived on campus—who sleeps on the bottom bunk, the optimum position for the flat screen, who gets the bigger side of the closet, etc.
I am not going to tell you one of my college roommates was a little psycho … or that another one of my roommates became the best man in my wedding. I will tell you that even though you can’t control your roommate, you can make the most of the experience. What may appear to be the luck of the draw as far as roommate success usually comes down to how well you can communicate and how flexible you are with others.
What happens if your roommate thinks everything you bought in the refrigerator is his to take at will? What if your wardrobe is slowly being taken over by your roommate? How you respond when your personal space is being invaded will determine what type of boundaries you need to set with your roommate. I had one student who complained to me that his roommate would Skype with his girlfriend every night until 3 or 4 in the morning, causing him to lose a lot of sleep. Another student became frustrated when her roommate insisted on playing music full blast all hours of the day. Situations like these are not uncommon and need to be addressed before they get out of hand.
Working situations out can be as easy as having an honest conversation together. Sitting down with your roommate at the beginning of the year and creating a list of Dos and Don’ts is a great way to ensure your personal and relational boundaries are being established. It’s OK to tell your roommate you don’t want her using your deodorant or those new skinny jeans you just bought. It’s OK for your roommate to tell you he doesn’t want your room to become the “hangout” for you and your girlfriend. As much as you may enjoy telling your roommate your set of expectations, it is also essential for you to respectfully accept his or her reasonable requests in return. Living together is a team effort and requires you to have open and honest conversations with each other.
It is possible you might be paired with a roommate who appears to be extremely clingy. Whether it’s because she is insecure about developing friendships or just thinks you are really cool, it can be frustrating when your social activities and personal time are intruded upon. This behavior may be normal at the beginning of the semester when most people do not have many friends. However, if it continues throughout the year, you will need to speak up for yourself. Again, as much as you don’t want to hurt his or her feelings, this requires an honest conversation and reestablishment of personal boundaries. You might want to try introducing your roommate to other people to help develop new friendships.
Sometimes you may be assigned to a room with multiple roommates. Now instead of dealing with one person, you are faced with the challenge of juggling multiple personality types, schedules and routines. In this scenario, your game plan needs to remain the same. It is essential for you and your roommates to create boundaries, discuss expectations and regularly address concerns. Designate a bulletin board or a closet mirror to post your class and work schedules, shopping lists for common areas and even a cleaning rotation to create a healthy living environment for everyone.
Some of the most difficult roommate issues are the most basic: sleeping patterns and cleanliness. I’ve encountered a student who preferred to study late at night with every light on in the room. Imagine being his roommate who needed complete darkness to fall asleep! I’ve also encountered a student whose roommate thought cleanliness was taking a bath once a week. Not only was the student tortured by her roommate’s body odor, she also regularly received air fresheners as gifts from the girls on her floor. In both of these instances, one roommate suffered for the other’s lack of common consideration. Even though both of these situations may seem uncomfortable to talk about (especially when addressing personal hygiene, like regularly showering), it is a part of living with another person and needs to be done.
What happens if you and your roommate just don’t get along? Will you be forced to spend the rest of the semester sleeping in your car or camping out in a friend’s room? Hopefully not! You are not alone, and you need to involve others in your plight. Every hall usually has a resident advisor (RA) who is specially trained in resolving conflict and would love to assist you. If it’s a severe issue, you can also make an appointment with your resident director (RD) who oversees the residence hall and usually has a greater knowledge of mediation. You may be asked to participate in creating a roommate contract to resolve the issues. Remember: Living in a residence hall is living within a community of others where everyone works together to do their part.
Finally, living in a residence hall will expose you to a wide range of people with different backgrounds, cultures, personalities, beliefs and values. Challenge yourself to be open to learning something new. Respect others based on their individuality. Don’t allow any preexisting judgments to hinder developing a great relationship with your roommate or others within your hall. You will be surprised who you befriend when you learn to respect others as individuals.
It’s normal to feel nervous—everyone is in the same boat, hoping for a great first roommate. By intentionally adhering to this advice, you and your roommate will be heading on course for a healthy relationship.
Though you might want to hide your deodorant just to be on the safe side.
Christopher Jindra is the senior resident director of residence life and an adjunct professor at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. He has lived on-campus with his wife, Meghan, and three young sons for the past five years.