Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rooming with others

Students the land over are packing up their things and heading away to college. And seeing those heavy-laden station wagons on the interstate always makes me wonder: taking eighteen-year-olds, removing them from family and friends and forcing them to live with a complete stranger in a tiny room--who still thinks that's a good idea?

Most shared-room situations don't end in tragedy, as the pairing of Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi at Rutgers did last fall. Some people (and I'm one of them) make fast and lifelong friends with their randomly-assigned roommates. But even those people who don't have serious problems with their freshman-year roommates can still find the ordinary stressors attendant upon going away to college compounded by the stress of trying to figure out how to live with another person.

And I think it's bizarre how sanguine we adults are about this process, and indeed how little thought we give to it. We tend to talk about rooming with strangers as useful and character-building, a way of learning to negotiate adult responsibilities. And that's certainly true (and it's also true that most young people will live with roommates or housemates well into their twenties). But I have plenty of students whose first weeks of college are made infinitely more complicated, and sometimes acutely traumatic, as a result of living in close quarters with someone they don't like, or who doesn't like them, or simply someone who has a radically different schedule or set of habits. Just sharing a room with someone you don't know and don't connect with--when you're already homesick and uncertain and wondering if you'll ever make any friends--can feel profoundly isolating.

Most young people going away to college today have never shared a room with another person. And we can say that this is a sign of class privilege, or that it leads to kids who are spoiled or selfish or maladaptive or whatever, but it's not a sign of being spoiled not to be prepared to do something that you've never had to do before. Once upon a time, the young men who went away to college tended to have gone to boarding school--or they'd lived in barracks in the military or were expecting to live in them after they graduated. Once upon a time, it was common for siblings to sleep two or three to a bedroom. But that's rarely the reality these days.

Don't get me wrong: I think dormitory living is useful for all the reasons other people allege, as is being thrown in with people you haven't elected to live with (and whom you might never elect to live with again). But there are smarter and less smart ways to organize freshman dorms. I'd argue that no freshman should ever be placed in an isolated double. Quads or sextets--two or three doubles with a common living space or some combination of singles and doubles with a common living space--make the most sense to me. That way students aren't stuck, alone, in a room with just one other person.

I'd also like to see us be more attentive to the difficulties of adjusting to dormitory life. Most roommate complaints aren't serious, in the sense that they don't require any intervention, and most such problems will pass. But that doesn't mean that there aren't real emotional and sometimes academic costs.


Unknown said...

Students sharing rooms isn't something that's done here in the UK, to my knowledge, and it seems a rather strange arrangement.

When I was in halls of residence, it was divided up into flats of five bedrooms plus shared kitchen, bathroom and communal area. It was pretty small and cramped, and it was still a learning experience living with a group of strangers, but at least we all had our own bedrooms as private space. I think that's pretty standard in most UK universities, though those that operate on college systems (i.e. Oxbridge and Durham) may be different.

CR said...

hmm, I'm not sure triples or quads are superior. I remember several situations from my own undergraduate years where one person became the odd one out, a pretty painful situation. The many-tiny-singles-around-a-common-area arrangement strikes me as perhaps the best, but obviously impossible to retrofit.

Given the dorms we actually have, I think maybe the best thing would be to allow a lot of leeway in terms of rooming with people you either know already (from hometown) or meet online (facebook groups seem to be the big thing these days) or, at least, share a major interest with, as indicated on your housing form. In other words, work very hard to put people in situations where they feel they have some idea what to expect, rather than prioritizing the random and unexpected (since, as you say, there's plenty of that in the first weeks of college already.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Not all adults are sanguine about this! (Where I held forth on this. And once more.) There are so many reasons why the two-strangers-share-a-room scenario's a terrible idea, one best avoided if space permits. (Roommate situations later in life tend not to involve the actual sharing of bedrooms.) But to point this out is, unfortunately, as you note, to seem as though one is suggesting that we further spoil today's fancy-schmancy college students. Single rooms (even if those rooms are in a dormitory, with shared kitchens and/or bathrooms, and far from lavish) get classified alongside flat-screen TVs in lounges, sushi in the cafeteria, state-of-the-art gyms, and whichever other amenities commenters to higher-ed articles claim undergrads demand.

But it's more than that. (It would have to be, because those gyms keep getting built.) Sharing a room - and not, as CR wisely suggests, with someone familiar - but with someone radically different from one's self is supposed to be a fundamental part of the American college experience. Something magical's supposed to happen, where prejudices disappear once there's a human face on some Other, whether that's someone gay or a racial minority (both of which came up in the Clementi case), or whether it's just someone from a different region or social class. The problem is, it's super unpleasant to be somebody's mind-expanding learning experience while also, as you say, trying to adjust to college all around. So unpleasant, in fact, that whichever roommate is the more Other will not be in the finest mood while in the room, and may well end up confirming the less Other roommate's notions about members of that group kinda sucking, after all.

Flavia said...

Phoebe: argh! I must have read your second post. Apologies for not remembering.

CR: I do suspect it's better these days, at least at smaller colleges where there does seem to be a lot of Facebook connecting with other likeminded new arrivals before one actually arrives. Having an unpleasant roommate is surely more bearable if you feel you already have a group of at least proto-friends.

And yes, you may be right about doubles in any configuration. I can say that although I became good friends with my freshman-year roommate, and elected to live with her (and next door to two of our other freshman-year suitemates) our sophomore year, we became better friends junior and senior year, when we both had singles next door to each other.

And okay, I'm an introvert, but I still found that living with other people in a dormitory (i.e., sharing a bathroom and having to make conversation at odd hours) caused me some very low-level, background stress. Nothing that was any kind of a problem--but after I graduated I always contrived to live alone. Even at age 22, even in NYC, and even in grad school on an inadequate stipend.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


No worries! I only linked to those b/c it was at least one data point showing that you're not the only one (nor, more specifically, the only adult who teaches undergrads) with that interpretation.

And I'm curious as to how you managed to live alone in NYC on a stipend! The best I came up with, pre-coupled-cohabitation, was a giant basement in Prospect Heights that connected via spiral staircase (no door) to the living area I shared with two other grad students, each in a minute-even-by-NY-standards, but door-having, bedroom upstairs. Lived in that place for two years, the first in one of the tiny bedrooms. It was indescribably better than sharing a bedroom with a stranger, but still no introvert's paradise.

clio's disciple said...

This may be screamingly obvious, but I think this practice endures because so many colleges have decades-old dorm infrastructure that's build this way. I agree with you--and my own freshman rooming scenario was a fairly painful triple--but I think back to the dorms on my campus, and I know the cost of renovating all those buildings away from doubles has got to be immense. The newer dorms my college has built are differently structured, I believe, but also more popular with upperclassmen because they're newer.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The space objection is indeed the obvious one, but this seems like something that could be dealt with often enough without major renovation. In NY apartments, walls are put up all the time. Even a glorified screen that made it clear a space was not shared could do the trick. No dorm situation will mean private-house-like privacy, but small changes could make the difference between feeling like you never have a moment alone and having at least the semblance of that.

I'd be curious to know, at any rate, if new dorms built have singles, or if the idea that college means room-sharing is so ingrained that even if singles potentially could be built, doubles/suites are instead.

scrc said...

At my alma mater, the new dorms being built are all in suite-style configurations. 4 bedrooms in an apartment with 2 bathrooms and 1 kitchen and living area. However, freshman and sophomores are still 2-to-a-room, resulting in suites of 8. Upperclassmen get their own rooms and 4-person suites. But its easy to see how this might change once adequate housing is built. And, indeed, that may be part of the plan.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I've blogged a bit about my freshman roommate here. In hindsight, I feel very sorry for her since she had to put up with my eighteen-year-old self (who was, frankly, a snob and a bit of a prig). I'm kind of grateful I had the opportunity to learn that I was a snob and a prig, but it shouldn't have come at her expense. (To be completely honest, it may also be a good thing that I had an opportunity to witness a freshman-year academic meltdown firsthand and see how these things unfold, since it helps me understand my own freshmen a little bit better, but that's definitely not the sort of learning experience the dorms are supposed to instill!)

No idea whether singles with common space / triples / quads would have helped that situation or exacerbated.

meg said...

Is it true that our generation didn't have to share bedrooms?

I'm an only child, so it wasn't a question, but all my friends with a same-sex sibling shared bedrooms, even the girl up the street whose father owned part of Secretariat.

Maybe it's a Southern thing?

Sisyphus said...

I had a triple, and lots of friction with my other two roommates (let me clarify that it was a double-size standard dorm room that they had squeezed an elevated bed into) but I always felt more sorry for the 12 people who were bunked in my floor's living lounge at the end of the hall. Rising enrollments mean more demand for housing but not enough to actually build any more housing.

And having your common area turned into more rooms, of course, meant that there was nowhere for those of us in triples to go to escape our roommates.

Ah, UC system! How you suck in many different ways. Stupid defunding of public ed!

The whole situation is weird. And there certainly isn't any money to retrofit things.

Flavia said...

Phoebe: shortest answer for how I afforded studios in NYC is that it drove me slowly into debt. At ages 22-24 I was definitely paying too much, even though I had a grown-up salary--and thus started a whole decade's worth of bad financial habits.

When I returned at age 28 midway through grad school, I lived in a big studio in a semi-renovated brownstone in central Harlem (rent ranged from $950 to $1050 the three years I was there) and I worked 16 hours/week at a job in publishing in addition to my stipend. That basically covered it, but I added at least $1K in debt to my credit cards every year between 22 and 32.

Meg: my betrothed shared a bedroom with his brother growing up, but I didn't know anyone, myself, who did (maybe because I'm a little younger, maybe because the housing stock where I grew up was much newer, maybe because most of my friends had opposite-sex siblings).

And yes to the rest of you about retrofitting, which I imagine is perversely harder with (relatively) newer buildings: my freshman-year dorm was about a hundred years old, and originally built to house young men of means--as were most of the other dorm rooms, built in the 1930s. So the original rooms were huge, and when they got carved up late in the 20th C. it was natural to carve them up into quads and sextets and even octets.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I get that some schools are overcrowded, but what about the ones Young People Today curmudgeons are always complaining about, where the undergrads have sooo many amenities? Or just schools where, for whatever reason, however shabby the dorms, the rooms are on the large side? I don't think we should get too sidetracked on the feasibility of single-room dorms, when obviously in many cases where they could be instituted, it doesn't happen.

Britta said...

To add another data point, I'm younger than Flavia, and I shared a room growing up until age 11, first with my brother, and then with my sister. Sharing a room with a sibling is not all fun and games (plenty of fights and lines being marked on the middle of the floor with tape) but it was just kind of normal. Most other same sex siblings I knew shared rooms, and most children's books I read also involved siblings sharing rooms, so it definitely seemed like the default to me.

My freshman year I lived in a quad which consisted of a double with two singles off of it (meaning you had to walk through the double to get to the single), and I was assigned one of the singles. It really was the best of both worlds, in that you had the camaraderie of roommates but privacy and the ability to stay up/go to sleep without having to deal with someone else's conflicting schedule. As a sophomore my roommate in the other single and I shared a room, which worked out fine since we were friends and reasonably compatible roommates.

On the flipside, my husband, who is not American, was someone who never shared a room or lived in anything less than absolute luxury before living with me, and I have to say seeing his inability to compromise or deal with even the slightest inconvenience (creaky floorboards?) made me a big proponent of the dorm system. Having, in your mid 20s, to deal with your partner have a melt-down on par with a 17 year old because the dishes weren't washed how his mother did them, or the floor wasn't swept every day, made me grateful of having to learn in my teens and early 20s (with subsequent to college roommate situations, inc. some which were awkward and horrible), to deal with other people's living habits. I know in general I tend towards the "builds character" school of thought though.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


My anecdata also points to room-sharing among siblings, even super-rich ones, being normal, but this was in Manhattan, where space even in million-dollar apartments is tight. I'm an only child, so I obviously didn't share a room with siblings, but I did spend my early childhood in the living room of my parents' one-bedroom apt. Not that I remember it!

I agree 100% re: the need to have had so-so living situations, so-so jobs, etc., to "build character." But is bedroom-sharing with strangers (as opposed to with friends!) necessary to accomplish that? I'm sure that no one who's lived in the dorm I was in in Paris would ever flip out over creaky floorboards, etc., yet these were (mostly? entirely?) single rooms. Same goes for post-college far-too-many-recent-grads-in-Brooklyn-apartment, hippie-co-op scenarios. Even in these, your room's your room, even if the bathroom, kitchen, etc. are shared. My issue - and I think Flavia's as well - is with the idea that this life experience must be accompanied by, here, meet this stranger who's been either picked at random or hand-picked to get a learning experience out of you or provide you with one, you two are now sharing the only space on campus where you might otherwise have a moment's peace.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Flavia's comment about how living with others caused "low level, background stress." Sweetie, that is called LIFE!!!

Flavia said...

Okay, so maybe I'm wrong about the decline of room-sharing! And/or maybe it has to do with growing up in a relatively newer community out west where housing stock (once) was cheap and big.

And yes, Britta, I'm with Phoebe: I totally agree about the building of character. But there are ways to do it that don't add unnecessarily (or that aren't as likely to add unnecessarily) to emotional drama. Though I admit that line may be different for different people.

Anon: thanks for your concern and well-wishes.

DDB said...

I lived in a single room in the dorms all four years of college. Freshman year was by request (though by no means guaranteed). The other three years were the perquisites of being an RA. Growing up, I never shared a room, though as pointed out, this may be more common with opposite-sex siblings.

I don't know why, but I had a somewhat irrational fear of having a roommate, and having to deal with the possibility of that person and I being too far apart on the personality spectrum made me cringe. Perhaps I missed out on some deep experience, but I still have several friends from my freshman year hall, and I never regretted the benefits that came from having a place I could go that was mine. As an RA I mediated enough roommate disputes to always feel relatively confident in my choice.

At most of the universities that I've been associated with as a student or faculty member, the trend has definitely been towards more suite-style living. The new dorms that were built at my alma mater as I was graduating followed this paradigm, as have the new dorms at both of the universities I've worked at (one private, one large state-U).

I think the new construction definitely favors the suite-style, and I agree with the poster above who said that renovating those 100-year old buildings is a challenge. The rooms in my freshman dorm were *tiny* - clearly not designed for the typical male student of today, who wants to bring TV's, game systems, computers, etc. There would be no way to subdivide them further.

Bardiac said...

Culturally, middle class white kids in the US might not be sharing rooms so much, but we (I'm a middle class white woman) also take up a lot of resources in all sorts of ways, way more than makes sense economically or ecologically. I think it's worth thinking about how our student living situations prepare them to be more ecologically aware.

When I was in the Peace Corps, local people were horrified that I'd live alone. It seemed desperately lonely to them. Maybe it's worth trying to think outside the middle class white comfort zone more? It's hard. I know it's hard for me, at any rate. (And I speak as someone who lives alone, so I'm an ecological disaster that way.)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I've wound up being glad I lived at home through college, because in the few instances when for a brief time I had a roommate (other than a romantic partner) it was indeed stressful in the sort of low-level way Flavia alludes to. If you're an introvert who didn't have to share a room as a child, that's not Life. There is no reason it should ever be life. As Phoebe argues and others point out, UK universities (for instance) have all singles in their dorms. As to whether people shared rooms, I'm older than Flavia, and very few of my friends shared rooms: one family that was not well off had a girl and two boys sharing a room into the oldest's teens, and a family of four boys in a small house had to pair up the boys, but I can also think of many instances when same-sex sibs had their own rooms. But in past generations, that was different. My mother and aunt shared a bed, not just a room, until my aunt married. I think early experiences really do form a person's ideas about space and what is comfortable. My parents did not understand why I wanted to live alone in grad school and afterwards, whereas I wanted it even before I could get it, and loved it when I did.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Maybe it's worth trying to think outside the middle class white comfort zone more?"

Not to repeat what I and others have mentioned, but the idea isn't to put college freshmen into these fully-equipped one-bedroom apartments, with every yuppie amenity and then some. It's the difference between a space, however tiny, that's yours, and no such space. I promise that a single room in a dorm can fall far below "middle class white" standards in terms of comfort and environmental impact, even far below what young adults contend with in shared apartments. Bed-like-a-board, plank-for-desk, just enough space to maneuver, paper-thin wall around it, kitchen and bathroom down the hall, that's a single room in a dorm, or can be at any rate. How, exactly, is that an ecological disaster? Because of the extra materials used to create that wall? The assumption that an ambitious student will drive far or even fly to get from home to college, there's something to question, environment-wise, far more than if it's one room for two or if a wall's put up as a divider.

Withywindle said...

I had my own room as a teenager, but a small one; I had more space in the room I shared as a freshman than I had had at home. Which seemed nifty to me at the time.

Britta said...

Ok, I agree that cultural norms can factor into things. It was easier, at 19, to share a room with a friend because I'd already gone through all the "mark your territory" type fights with my sister, and suddenly stuff like that didn't seem as important. Although I am an introvert who likes to be alone, I don't have a strong concept of privacy, which is now that I think about it kind of strange.

I do understand the low level stress though, especially being neurotic and anxious by nature, and the type of person who stresses about who buys soap and toilet paper, but is too non-confrontational to bring stuff like that up with roommates. My feeling is though, that while having to share a room could make a stressful situation worse, it in itself has very little to do with making the living situation awful in the first place. My absolute worst living situation, the type where the thought of going home and being around my housemates gave me a knot in my stomach, was when I had my own room and bathroom, yet having to share a kitchen and living room was almost intolerable for a lot of reasons. Conversely, one of my easiest living situations was actually sharing a bed two years ago in a tiny one bedroom with a girl in my grad program. Again, I guess a part of it is cultural norms. In China, it's totally normal for non-wealthy Chinese to share beds with total strangers in their 20s (e.g. the real estate agent pointed out that she shared one bed with 4 girls, all her coworkers, so 2 girls in a giant bed was a relative luxury). My current landlady in Beijing shares a bed with her young daughter and occasionally her younger brother. My friend, who was born in China, is an only child but grew up sharing with cousins and grandparents, and I again shared with my sister. (In fact, now that I think about it, my best experiences sharing a house both in the US and in China have always been with Chinese people, so maybe there is a link between coming from a crowded developing country and being a considerate roommate?)