Close quarters

One of the big challenges for new college students is sharing their living space for the first time

August 27, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,sun reporter

Tim Halligan learned an important lesson in college last year that did not come from the classroom.

It came, unfortunately, by way of sharing 165 square feet of space at the University of Maryland, College Park, with two old chums from childhood. The experience allowed Halligan to discover that one of his bunkmates:

A. Snored, occasionally. B. Stumbled in at 2 a.m. fairly often and jostled Halligan awake to ask him what time he was getting up. C. Brought friends over every night of the week. And D. Made disturbing noises of the squeaky-bed variety when a girlfriend slept over occasionally.

"It was awkward," says Halligan, a 20-year-old psychology major from Abingdon who looks back on the past school year and laughs. "I tried putting a blanket up to cover my bottom bunk and give him some privacy. I called it The Fort. It didn't help much.

"You never really know somebody until you live with them in a small box every day and your beds are only a foot apart," Halligan says. "You definitely learn a lot and sometimes, it's more than you want to know."

Ah, the joys of cohabitation.

As if the prospect of classes, exams and endless papers

isn't stressful enough on a student's fragile psyche, add to it the possibility of living 24 hours a day with a complete stranger or lifelong pal who turns out to be utterly unaware of personal boundaries and decorum.

For that reason, experts say one of the toughest adjustments many students leaving the comforts of home for college this month will have to conquer isn't acing Econ 101, but sharing cramped quarters with others -- often for the first time.

"You can think of it as a marriage of sorts, and in most cases, it is an arranged marriage," says Paul Fornell,

president of the American College Counseling Association. "You didn't go out and fall in love with each other and decide to live together.

"In most cases, you're just thrown in there with someone, surrounded by thousands and thousands of other students, and you're just stuck with each other," Fornell says. "That can be stressful. It takes good communication skills and respecting the other person's thoughts and feelings to make it work."

Even mastering those skills doesn't guarantee roommate harmony.

Surprise, surprise

Take the case of 23-year-old Stephanie Femrite of Ellicott City, who moved to Pasadena, Calif., last year to study at Fuller Theological Seminary. Too much communication was the problem Femrite had with her 35-year-old roommate.

"Within a week of living there, she told me to cut one of my best friends out of my life," Femrite says. "It went downhill from there."

The fully furnished bedroom and private bath Femrite thought she was getting for $800 a month off-campus turned out to be a room with a mattress on the floor and a bathroom shared with several of the roomie's friends, who were constantly camping out. The woman soon proceeded to scrutinize Femrite's belongings and lifestyle to tell her what to wear, what to eat, how to study, how to talk with professors, who to date and which celebrities to worship.

"It got to the point where I was barricaded in my room all day, leaving only to use the bathroom and go to school," Femrite says. "I failed a class while I was living with her."

To avoid such disastrous blends of conflicting personalities, many schools such as UM use lifestyle questionnaires that pose questions such as: Do you smoke? Do you object to roommates who smoke? Would you consider yourself a neat and tidy person? Do you typically go to bed before midnight on weekdays? Do you consider your room a primary place to study?

"After we give information to students about who they're living with, we strongly encourage them to contact each other and begin making some plans," says Mike Glowacki, assistant to the director of resident life at UM. "We tell them to have conversations about not just who is bringing what, but also how they feel about borrowing things, eating each other's food or having guests over."

But make no mistake, there is no perfect formula for a perfect match.

Sometimes, similar backgrounds can mix like oil and water.

David Boyd was on the track team and his roommate was a lacrosse player at Washington College in Chestertown when they decided to share a room in the late 1950s. The athletes were both friendly and social.

"He was a drinker," says Boyd, a retired Towson University professor who lives in White Hall. "When he drank, which was frequently, he'd want to antagonize me. He'd come home at night, get into his bed, put his feet on the springs of my upper bunk bed and bounce me up and down while I was sleeping."

Amazingly, the guy "was surprised when I told him I was rooming with someone else next year," Boyd says, chuckling.

In some cases, culture clashes can broaden perspectives.

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