On the first night of freshman year, I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I had driven some seven hours that day, making it to campus just in time to de-bunk beds in my new room and play two-truths-and-a-lie with the kids on my hall.
My new roommate and I shuffled through the welcome activities together. We had communicated online during the summer, and we’d had a lively Facebook exchange about the book The Lovely Bones. In person, though, we were awkward. The situation was, especially at bedtime: Two near-strangers sleep in twin beds, not five feet away from each other, like a married couple from the 1950s. There isn’t anything normal about that.
I lay there that first night staring at the dark ceiling. Who is the girl next to me? I wondered. Will she become my best friend? Will we fight? What have I gotten myself into?
Getting to know a random roommate is weird and nerve-racking, but most freshmen do it. I didn’t have a choice; none of my high school friends were headed to my college. I filled out the three questions on my roommate questionnaire (no smoking, no messes, no late nights; in other words, nerd alert!) and hoped for the best.
The roommate questionnaire isn’t perfect, but it is the best way for most students to communicate their preferences to the office of residential life (if you have a disability, it is recommended that you call the office to discuss your needs). Filling it out honestly and turning it in before the deadline will help you avoid a random-roommate horror story. Still, you never know. For a few people, roommate assignments work out really well. For most people, they work out just fine. For the rest, they don’t work out at all.
I fell into the latter category.
My roommate wasn’t a bad person by any means, but our differences were difficult to ignore in such close quarters. She was always in the room if she wasn’t in class, and I couldn’t seem to eat at the dining hall without her joining. As an outgoing introvert, I longed for separate friends, space, and privacy.
All of that might have been fine if it hadn’t been compounded with other issues. Our religious beliefs conflicted; I wanted to respect our differences quietly, and she liked to talk about them. Those conversations left me feeling patronized and upset, and they brought out a defensive and hurtful side of me that I didn’t like.
There was the small issue of the knife, too. She came from a rural community and she kept a knife that her boyfriend had given her in case of an attack. While it made her feel safe, it made me feel unsafe. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t find a happy compromise.
What I wanted was simple. I didn’t even hope to live with a best friend; I just wanted to live with someone friendly yet independent. I wanted a roommate situation in which we respected each other’s space and beliefs. I wanted to feel comfortable.
I didn’t know anyone with a roommate situation quite like mine. I only knew of two people who had switched roommates earlier in the year. During orientation week, one of the guys across the hall woke up to find his drunk roommate urinating on him. He was gone the next day. At a different school, a friend of mine from high school was matched with a sorority girl. She was so shocked to learn that my friend was put off by Greek life that she called her “the anti-Christ.” My friend was switched immediately, and the school issued an apology to her.
My situation never blew up like that, so I didn’t know what to do.
When I brought it up with my family, they were surprised that I was considering a room transfer. Their advice was to stick it out. I tried to make it work by suggesting to my roommate that we not discuss religion and not spend every moment together. For a few days after those conversations, things would be fine. Then, they would go back to normal. I met with my residential advisor and a reslife employee, who also urged me to stay in that room.
In retrospect, I’m shocked that that’s the advice we give students who are unhappy with their roommate situations. A room switch is not to be considered lightly, but students should trust their guts. If students put in honest efforts to communicate with their roommates but their efforts fail, they should move elsewhere.
In the spring semester, I switched rooms. Things got better for me, and I managed to stay friendly with my first roommate when I saw her around campus. My second roommate became a friend of mine, but we lived our separate lives on campus and respected each other’s space. Everything about the room transfer was ideal, and I wish I would have switched earlier.
My experience has affected the advice I give to students who are not comfortable in their rooms. Below is what I would do if I were you.
Request an immediate room change if:
- You feel unsafe or in danger.
- You are not comfortable with any illegal activities that your roommate engages in, especially if they happen in your room.
- You are being bullied, abused, or harassed in any way by your roommate.
- You need privacy as you transition your gender or sex.
- Your roommate discriminates against you or commits a hate crime.
If you have smaller issues with your roommate, talk to him or her diplomatically. Try to stay level-headed and listen to your roommate’s concerns. If still nothing improves, consider a room change if:
- Your schedules conflict in a way that affects your sleeping or studying.
- You have tried to address issues but you are not being listened to.
- You suspect your roommate is stealing from you.
- Your roommate attacks your faith or attempts to convert you.
- Your roommate’s dating life interrupts your sleep schedule or compromises your privacy.
- Your housing situation is affecting your overall college experience, and you are thinking about transferring schools at the end of the year.
- One of you is a smoker, and the other is not.
Wait until next year if:
- The situation is fine, but it would be more fun to live with a close friend.
- The situation is fine, but you and your roommate don’t have any common interests.
- The situation is fine, but your roommate leads a separate social life or doesn’t like to party with you.
- Your roommate is great, but you want to switch to a better dorm room or building.
- Your roommate is a little bit messier or tidier than you are.
- You don’t like the smell of your roommate’s perfume or food.
You should feel respected when you’re having difficult conversations with your roommate. Your room is yours just as much as it is his or hers. You should always feel comfortable and safe. Never settle for less than that.
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