Social Challenges in College Dorms?

Most Bates students live in a double during their first year of college, which means they have a roommate. It is true that the school does not have enough space to offer everyone a single room, but I believe “double for freshmen” is designed intentionally. Students become adults in college, facing and solving complicated problems—sharing a room with another person is the first social challenge they face. 

Take me as an example. I lived with my family for 18 years before I came to college. I had private space when I was at home which allowed me to do whatever I wanted. Upon arriving at Bates, I was nervous because I didn’t know if I would get along with my roommate. College was a completely new environment for me and I knew no one at Bates. I worried if I would make friends, not to mention living in a room with a person I never met before. 

This year, I work as a Junior Advisor (JA). One of the JA’s tasks is solving roommate conflicts. 

“My roommate is so messy.”

“My roommate goes back to our room after 2 a.m. every day. I can’t fall asleep.”

“I can’t live with a person who doesn’t shower every day.”

“I feel insecure if my roommate is already gone when I wake up.”

“My roommate always opens the window.”

“My roommate always brings other people to our room.”

In the past two months, I heard all kinds of complaints from my first-year students about their roommates. I realize it is not as simple of a problem as the roommate going to bed too early, or the roommate’s table is not tidy enough… it is more about the difference in everyone’s social background. This is the social challenge. Roommates are the most unique relationship in college. One of my friends once told me: “We could be good friends, but we might not be good roommates.” Someone else said: “The best roommate relationship is being able to coexist.”

Why is living with another person such a difficult task?

Firstly, unfamiliarity. When we come to college, we say goodbye to the place we are familiar with. Adapting to a new environment requires time. Although there are many ice-breaking activities during orientation week, it takes more time and effort to really get to know a person and make friends with them. College not only brings an unfamiliar social circle but also an unfamiliar campus and space. I know the campus of my high school like the back of my hand, but I did not know the way to the Office of Accessible Education at Bates until the end of my first semester. College students need to find a private space that they trust—this doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical place. A trusted group of friends could also function as a safe space. If one can’t find such a space where they feel comfortable, they are more likely to feel insecure about their whereabouts. This could even happen in dorms when students feel they are being watched by their roommates. Find your “own place” and find a place where you could cry on your own.

Secondly, differences. Everyone has different social backgrounds, which makes our lifestyles very different from each other. Someone may prefer living in a darker room; someone may prefer to live in a room with many lights; someone may go to bed before 11:00 p.m. every day; someone stays until 2:00 a.m.; someone may want to lock their door; or someone feels that the community is safe enough. There is no right or wrong between all of these personal preferences. The cultures we grow up in make us different. 

All students provide information about their lifestyle when they apply for dorms and the residence living staff tries its best to assign roommates with the same habits. Even so, it is still hard for students to live with someone who doesn’t share the same culture as them. Sociologists Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan researched sexual assaults on the Columbia University campus and the power dynamics of college dorms. In their book Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, they argue that “navigating difference has become a critical mission of American higher education.…… For incoming students, the transition to college presents at least three distinct social challenges: leaving home, remaking their social world, and encountering forms of difference with which they are unfamiliar. For the institution, the challenge is to bridge those differences in experiences, resources, and self-understanding to create a community of learners.” Accepting differences is the lesson. 

Thirdly, spoiled kids and egotism. Most students who complain about their roommates in my first-year center don’t accept or understand the way their roommate lives, behaves or manages things. “My roommates put snacks on the table. Snacks should be in the cabinet!” “I want my roommate to put stuff away exactly how I put my stuff away.” Or, “I feel distracted every time I see my roommate’s bed. I don’t like my roommate’s sheets.” Two people who live together are two separated individuals and should not force conformity on each other. They might both prefer to study in a quiet place, but this doesn’t mean they share the same mindset. Instead, communication and compromise are the keys to a healthy roommate pairing. 

As the first semester of this academic year approaches its end, I want all students, especially first years, to rethink their relationships with their roommates. This relationship is a mirror. While you might feel unsatisfied or uncomfortable because of another person, you should also see yourself in this mirror. Stand in their shoes, and treasure this special roommate relationship that might not happen again.