Even just one generation ago, teen-agers commonly shared bedrooms with their siblings. Today, that is changing as couples are having fewer children. Children now typically have their own room, and often, their own bathroom. While this trend may solve squabbles between siblings at home, it can lead to trouble when teens go off to college.
“More than ever before, students have a ‘my own’ mentality,” says Connie Carson, director of residence life and housing at Wake Forest University. “It’s ‘my own room,’ ‘my own shower,’ at home, so when they come to college and have to share a smaller living space, problems can arise quickly.”
While roommate conflicts sometimes occur between upperclassmen, they are far more common among freshmen, Carson said. Helping freshmen adjust to having a roommate was a major focus at a recent international conference for residence life administrators that she attended.
Carson said the most common cause of problems is not a roommate borrowing something without asking or the infamous “third roommate” – the roommate’s significant other – being in the room too much. The most frequent catalyst for conflict is poor communication and that is where parents can help the most.
“For first-year students today, who haven’t ever had to hash out with another person how much quiet time they need or what items are off-limits for borrowing, it can be tough feeling comfortable enough to set boundaries,” Carson said. “Parents can help ease this transition by simply discussing these things with their child before the student comes to school. This prepares students for the learning experience they’re about to embark on both in and out of the classroom.”
Carson said parents should encourage students to look forward to living with someone new. They should also talk about what living on a college campus is like so that the student doesn’t get blindsided by reduced privacy when they arrive.
“Students sometimes have a romanticized view of what living in a residence hall is like,” Carson said. “Parents should make sure they’re informed about possibilities like sharing their prized music collection and how to handle more delicate situations like when a roommate brings a date over.”
At most schools, the adjustment to living with a roommate can be particularly challenging because freshmen do not pick their roommate. The residence life staff at Wake Forest matches freshmen together who are from different parts of the country and list similar lifestyle preferences on a short housing survey.
“We have that policy in place so that the residential experience becomes an integral part of a student’s education at Wake Forest,” Carson said. “The students are placed in a new environment in order to learn about and value the differences they have
with their roommate. They also have to learn positive communication skills.”
Once freshmen arrive at Wake Forest, the residence life staff begins its work to help ease the transition. To smooth over any rough edges between roommates, resident advisors who are upperclassmen meet with roommate pairs and go over a “Roommate Agreement.” Students fill it out when they arrive on campus, spelling out the particulars of how they expect to live.
“Our theory is, if you spell everything out from the beginning, in writing, the students feel more accountable to respect their roommate’s wishes, and that helps avoid problems later,” Carson said.
Topics on the form include how loud music can be played, expectations of cleanliness and when each person expects to sleep. It also lists student’s’ rights and responsibilities, like the right to study free from interference whenever necessary and the right to free access to the room without pressure from a roommate.
Wake Forest’s strategies to keep the peace between students works, Carson said, because there are very few problems serious enough to cause students, especially freshmen, to change roommates.
“It’s also encouraging that time after time, alumni tell us that the people they most often continue to maintain relationships with from college are their first roommate and floormates,” Carson said.
“The bond that can form when two people from different backgrounds come together to share a small living space while they grow into adulthood and deal with the rigors of college can be amazing.”
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