My College:
Housing & Residential Life

Handling Roommate Issues

LaTrina A. Rogers, MS Ed.

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It's exciting to move to campus and start college life, but first-year students are usually a bit anxious, too. One of the biggest unknowns: Will I get along with my roommate?

I’ve worked in Residence Life for years and the one thing I know for certain is that whenever people live together in close quarters there will be moments of contention. College roommates can work through these moments as long as they’re open to discussing their issues. I remind students living in my residence hall that silence condones behavior. When a problem arises, they’re expected to handle it on their own through communication, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.

During these times, parents are likely to receive desperate, teary phone calls. It’s painful to hear from your students when they’re distressed and you may be tempted to jump in.

Please don’t. I’ve seen parents get involved in roommate situations and it never turns out well. Unless a student feels like they're in real danger, a parent's role is to listen and ask about the steps they've taken in the situation.

College is a great soft training ground for young adults to learn how to handle adversity. I'm going to share some insights to help you guide your new college student as they learn to share space in a residence hall.

First College Roommate: Friend or Nightmare?

When incoming college students think ahead to living with a roommate, they often expect the person will either be their soulmate or a complete horror show. The truth is their attitude as they adjust to dorm life can really impact what unfolds next.

During these early days, encourage your student to keep an open mind. Remind them that their roommate, and all the other first-year students, are just as nervous about sharing space with strangers as they are.

The Initial Conversation

Most first-year students receive their housing assignment over the summer. This leaves plenty of time to connect with their roommate before move-in, and in the age of social media, they know all sorts of personal information about each other before they meet in person.

Now they actually have to build a relationship and TALK to each other. A few intentional conversations can help set the stage for better communication all year long. What should be considered during these initial talks?

1. Remember Everyone Is Unique

There are so many subjects to consider when sharing space. Remembering that not everyone is alike (family background, life experiences, personal beliefs, daily habits, etc.) will save your student frustration and heartache. It's natural to look at the world from our own perspective; to share space with someone else, students need to accept the perspective of others.

2. Be Authentic

Students shouldn’t feel the need to impress their new roommate. They should be honest about themselves and their expectations.

3. Set Boundaries

It's important for students to recognize the need for boundaries; clear boundaries help ensure everyone is comfortable. Some boundaries to discuss include sharing items, cleanliness, study time, visitors, and noise. Students should understand their own preferred boundaries while being realistic and respectful.

4. Compromise

While boundaries are important, so is compromise. The rules can’t benefit only one person — each roommate has to participate in creating a fair and fun living environment for everyone. This means taking other people’s needs and preferences into consideration. There may be some things your student has to do differently.

5. Expect Change

Students’ day-to-day habits tend to evolve based on how they’re managing with their newfound freedom. So everything discussed in these early conversations may change over the course of the school year; roommates might have to address a new set of boundaries based on what’s happening.

What If There’s Still a Problem?

Even when roommates do all the right things, there may be strife. Every student housing department has protocols for handling roommate issues. The next step, after trying to work things out on their own and giving it at least two weeks to see change, is to speak with their Resident Assistant/Advisor (RA). The RA has been trained to work with roommates on mediation. As a last resort there are also protocols to change rooms or roommates.

Roommates can be joy and pain. In my housing experience, I’m grateful to say I’ve seen much more joy than pain. There are roommates who remain friends after college and those who are grateful to separate as soon as the school year ends. I’ve also had many students who got along and lived well together without being super close friends because they were respectful of one another.

There are all types of roommate experiences and for the most part they grow out of what each person brings to their living situation. Parents, support your students as they navigate this new path. Encourage open and honest dialogue and compromise.

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LaTrina A. Rogers, MS Ed. (she/her/hers) is Director of Residential Life at Ranken Technical College in St. Louis. She holds a master's in College Student Personnel Administration from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and has over 15 years of experience in student affairs across a number of functional areas including admissions and degree completion programs as well as residence life. LaTrina is The Dorm Mom — connect with her on Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest and @thedormmom on Instagram and Twitter!

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