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Can We Help Our College Students Be More Empathetic?Marybeth Bock, MPH
I was lucky enough to meet my post-dorm roommate on the second day of freshman year in college. Now more than ever, as we've all had to adjust to spending more time at home, I consider myself indescribably and inexplicably blessed to have my roommate Shay in my life.
We’ve lived together since sophomore year and have learned a lot along the way, about roommates and about life. It’s rare to coexist harmoniously with a roommate for four years in a row, which makes me all the more grateful for Shay.
After five years of friendship and an ongoing pandemic under our wing, Shay and I are about as close as two people can get. We’ve established a quarantine routine (mostly involving movie nights and copious amounts of late night food deliveries) and do our best these days to stay positive and bask in the little victories of life.
I hope our roommate story gives you some helpful tips to share with your student about how to build fun and functional roommate relationships in college — and beyond!
Shay and I have stood side-by-side through a lot since we met, from the transition to college as international students (both of us having been born in the States but raised overseas), family dramas, friendship troubles, life challenges and so much more.
The transition back to the U.S. and being half a world away from our parents for the first time was difficult, but it was a huge relief to know we were both equally confused by the cultural differences, social norms and more as we adjusted. We helped each other feel less alone in a foreign environment and the foundation of our friendship was quickly established from there.
Truth be told, we clung to each other because we were both desperate to find someone who understood how difficult the transition to living in the States was for us. Looking back, I think I was unconsciously searching for someone who understood what an outsider I felt like after so many years abroad.
Despite the fact that we were fast friends, a strong friendship does not directly translate into a strong roommate dynamic. Sharing a space takes a completely different type of compatibility. What do you value in a home? How clean/organized do you like your space to be? Do you mind chaotic shared spaces or sharing chores? How do you handle conflict?
Though it took us a bit of adjusting to figure out the details, we have always tried to be selfless with each other. When we were sharing a bathroom, if I knew she needed to be up early in the morning I insisted she take the first shower so she could get to bed. If she knew I was busy, she did the lion's share of the cleaning. If we have the time, we also try to fold each other’s laundry as a way to show we care.
Because we were too far from our parents to depend on their help, we relied on one another for guidance. I taught her to cook and she taught me to clean. When faced with a problem neither of us know how to solve, we sit down and do our best to figure it out together, be it leasing contract terminology or wasp infestations.
No matter how perfect a relationship may seem, you will inevitably find yourselves clashing over something or other. For us, this mostly happens when it’s time for us to find a new home again. We look for different things in potential housing options. Where I prioritize location over all else, she concentrates on the quality of the appliances and how a space has been renovated.
Though these differences used to cause tension, we’ve now learned to practice patience above all else, as our differing priorities ultimately result in finding a home we both absolutely love. And at the end of the day, we’d rather live together than with anyone else.
Before we learned patience is key, we were definitely a bit terse with one another as we tried to find housing that would suit us both. Luckily we have a similar approach to conflict and we usually try to give each other some space when we know it’s getting tense so we can both calm down enough to talk about it productively.
Beyond that, on a daily basis we pride ourselves on being considerate. I know how much she values keeping a clean home, so I do my best to clean often and keep our shared spaces neat day to day. We’ve shared groceries for as long as we’ve lived together and we try to make sure to grab the other’s favorites whenever we’re at the store. I’m a rather clumsy and accident-prone individual, so I’m lucky to have such a caring roommate who happens to have been an integrative physiology major. She forces me to properly clean any cuts or scrapes (I tend to be dismissive about self-care) and advises me on how to keep them from scarring or getting infected.
Encourage your student to find a roommate with similar core values as people, and remind them that just because someone makes a good friend does not necessarily mean they will make a good roommate.
If your student is conflict averse (like my roommate and I), they may clash badly with a roommate who is confrontation driven. Of course, if your student prefers to leave nothing unsaid, they might do very well with a roommate who similarly enjoys open communication at all times.
Whether your student’s roommate is their best friend or an acquaintance prior to move-in, they will inevitably build a deeply involved relationship together. Roommate tension may seem like a small issue at first, but it can quickly take a turn for the worse and they may find themselves feeling uneasy in their own home, which can cause indescribable amounts of stress.
If they take the time to make all aspects of their housing situation feel like home, they will always have an oasis where they can escape the anxiety and pressures of life.
College constantly forces you to adapt and rise to face a plethora of challenges. Finding a sense of home at college is incredibly important, perhaps even more so for people like me and Shay as we had lost our sense of home upon moving around the world for college.
Being able to build the comfort of home with Shay was often the only thing that got me through everything life threw at me these past five years.
I call her my soulmate because in so many ways she just “gets” me. She mirrors so many of my values, understanding my life and my consequent needs. She’s my voice of reason and gives me comfort and advice whenever I need it. She’s been my rock and I would be completely lost without her.
The pandemic has allowed Shay and me to spend a lot more quality time together, and though occasionally we struggle to find a way to fill that time, it’s brought us that much closer as roommates — and friends. We’re both apprehensive about the day we’ll have to part ways (and live with other people again!), but I will forever be grateful to Shay for helping me find my home away from home.