All across the US, college freshmen are arriving on campus in the early weeks of fall to meet their freshmen-year roommates. Lots of colleges opt to randomly assign roommates in order to foster connections between students of different backgrounds and push students out of their comfort zones. Higher education experts say that living with strangers offers students new experiences that are crucial to their education.
Of course, there are plenty of risks that come along with moving in with a stranger, too. I asked the Quartz newsroom to share their stories of memorable freshman year roommates—whether good, bad, or plain old strange. I was overwhelmed by the volume of responses—a sure sign that, years later, the person you share your first dorm room with may still impact you.
So, is living with a stranger a good idea? Depends who you ask—and primarily, it turns out, on whether you’re able to find some common ground.
In the best-case scenario, the stranger with whom you share the shoebox that your school calls a room may become a close friend. But getting there may require navigating cultural differences and misunderstandings along the way. One case in point is the story of my colleague Sarah’s freshman-year roommate at Northwestern University:
“I grew up in rural Wisconsin, in a town where just about everyone is either Catholic or Lutheran. My freshman roommate was Jewish, and it was Passover. I’d heard about ‘hiding the afikomen’ at passover meals, and very much misunderstood. She was not extremely devout, but was trying to keep kosher for the week when I hid all of her matzah, leaving her very hungry until I returned to the dorm after class. The same year, she came to Easter mass with me, and she asked me what to wear. I was being sarcastic and said ‘head-to-toe pastels.’ She showed up in head-to-toe pastels. [Today] we’re still best friends and she lives one block away from me. I go to Passover at her parents’ house every year.”
Many people echoed Sarah’s story, with tales of bonding with roommates who initially seemed like an awkward fit. That was the case for Edmund, who at first hated his randomly-assigned flatmate at Trinity College in Dublin:
“I immediately clashed with one of the guys I was assigned to live with in Trinity. Genuinely, everything he did seemed anathema to me—he was loud, annoying, thought too highly of himself. Initially, I was probably too reserved and a bit timid, but, for the better part of six months, it was constant minor arguments and random sneering at each other. … But at some point, we both realized that we were way more alike than we were different. Five years later, we’re best friends—and he’s the one person who’s been there for me through everything.”
Marc, who has had both good and bad random roommates, agreed:
“It’s not all that hard to find common ground with people, and that can quickly lead to a feeling of ‘I get it’ that you share, which creates the foundation for friendship.”
There are also the lucky few whose randomly-assigned roommates are perfect fits from the get-go. That was the case for Ephrat, who immediately clicked with her roommate at Boston University:
“My freshman-year roommate was awesome. … We were randomly assigned but quite perfectly aligned, so much so that we pissed people off a little … both literary/artsy types, very into style.”
But there are pitfalls to living with a stranger, too. Students may end up rooming with someone who’s disrespectful of their lifestyle habits or possessions, leading to stories like Rosie’s at the University of California, Santa Cruz:
“My freshman roommate used to take a lengthy nap at 2 pm every weekday and would get mad at me for, like, being an awake human during those hours.”
At Penn State, Marc told of a roommate named Mark:
“Mark didn’t have his own computer … [but] he spent many of his waking hours playing Warcraft, I think it was, on my computer.”
In addition, random roommate pairings can be risky for marginalized students, who may find themselves living with someone whose prejudice impacts their experiences at school. One Quartz reporter, who is a queer woman, said that was her experience in college:
“[My roommate] was a goofy, lovable, oft-drunk soccer player who told me she was of course totally fine with gay people ‘as long as they didn’t, you know, hold hands in public or teach in schools and things like that.’ … I was surprised more than anything by the inanity of her views. She was harmless, though; I think it didn’t feel particularly threatening or unsafe [because] I had learned pretty quickly that didn’t really care what she thought and that we had little in common.”
That sentiment was echoed by another colleague, Nikhil, who noted that a randomized roommate policy often benefits those who are already privileged at the expense of others. He adds that “rich people get to ‘learn’ about the poor; [heterosexuals] get to ‘learn’ about the queer,” all “thanks to work from the less powerful group.”
Schools have an obligation to both protect students and expose them to different people and experiences. The roommate relationship is a microcosm of that contradiction. Schools like Duke University, which recently decided to stop honoring roommate requests in favor of randomized assignments, are betting that the pros outweigh the cons. As Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, and Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote in a letter to Duke undergraduates: ”Our experience over many years assures us (and thus, you) that you’ll be fine … better in fact!”