Originally created 07/31/05

For many freshmen, living with a stranger is the biggest challenge



Brandon Gordon was a low-key New York City kid, his freshman roommate a Southern preppy boarding school grad who partied hard when he got to college. The year they spent living cheek-by-jowl in a Brown University dorm room produced few fond memories.

"I spent a lot of time outside my dorm, (found) other ways to occupy my time," said Gordon, who recently graduated from Brown. "When it was really bad and we weren't talking to each other it was pretty much, come in, look at e-mail, go to sleep and try not to talk to each other."

Sharing a small room with a complete stranger is one of the defining experiences of freshman year, and it's one students may never have again.

Sometimes, the arrangement results in a lifelong friendship. Usually, it's somewhere between tolerable and rewarding.

And sometimes, it's a disaster than can drag down the entire freshman experience.

"What's sad is I think we could have been friends if we'd met casually," Gordon said, recalling an evening he held a trashcan to keep his roommate from vomiting on the rug. "But living together definitely set up a different relationship."

In some ways, the roommate challenge may be tougher than it used to be. Particularly at a diverse school like Brown, roommates may come from completely different backgrounds. And experts say that in the past more students arrived in college accustomed to sharing a room with siblings. Today, more teens grow up having their own rooms.

Nonetheless, students and administrators say that even roommates with big differences can usually tolerate and even enjoy living with each other by following a few guidelines.

- Don't lie on the housing sheet. After notifying a college that they plan to attend, students typically receive a form asking questions like whether they smoke, stay up late and like to keep their room neat. The forms are intended to head off the most predictable lifestyle clashes. But administrators say they never cease to be amazed by the number of students who let their parents fill out the form - or who fill it out with their parents looking over their shoulder.

"If you are a messy person, go ahead and indicate that," says Carol Casey, associate dean of student affairs at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. "If you don't and you happen to get into a room with a neat freak, that can cause immediate conflicts that could have been avoided."

As for parents, "they're better off having their kids tells us they smoke even if they don't want to deal with it," said Aaron Fetrow, dean of campus life at Guilford College in North Carolina, and a veteran of residence-life positions at several other schools, including the University of Tennessee.

- Don't be disappointed if your roommate doesn't become your best friend. Often, people who aren't great friends make great roommates. Great friends make bad roommates if personal issues get entangled in roommate issues.

That's why many colleges discourage students from living with a high school friend, though they may offer the choice. Fetrow says that discourages meeting new people, and often backfires.

- Communicate, early and often. "You don't have to like the person you're living with as long as you can communicate what you need and they need," said Allison Lombardo, another Brown student and author of the book "Navigating Your Freshman Year" in a series called "Students Helping Students" (Natavi Guides). "Passive aggressiveness usually doesn't help."

Honesty gets problems dealt with before they become serious.

"If somebody was doing something in the bathroom or one of the common areas that didn't work well (for the other suitemates), we had to make the issue public right off the bat," said Emily Christianson, a recent University of North Carolina graduate who says she made a difficult relationship with one roommate freshman year work tolerably well. "Otherwise it would fester."

- It's possible to be too nice. "I think a lot of times people tend to be really overly courteous," Christianson said. "You have to be very realistic with this person. It's not like a regular friend."

Gordon remembers a period of artificial civility before things got bad with his roommate.

"We were probably too respectful of one another, not doing anything without asking each other," he said. "'Hey, can I turn on the TV? Can I turn on the radio? Does this light bother you?'" But beneath the surface, bigger issues were lurking. Best to get them out.

When roommates can't work out problems themselves, resident advisers or residence life deans may try to help with some kind of contract, so that at least both parties know what the other expects.

"It usually involves a trade-off: 'I'll stop burning incense if you stop leaving dirty underwear on the floor,'" Fetrow said.

But sometimes it's just oil and water. While most schools discourage the practice, there are always a few cases that require a mid-year room switch.

"There's a point where it's just so different it's not going to happen," he said.