As summer winds down and thousands of college students flock to their university digs, it is important to remember that roommates can be among the most enriching relationships in your college experience. But learning to get along with a stranger, often in a small space, can also be challenging, especially if you’ve never had to share a room.
"It’s just about learning how to communicate, compromise and respect each other," says Kenrick Ali, associate director of residence life at Cal State East Bay, which welcomes 1,500 residents to its dorms on Sept. 20.
Ali has mediated hundreds of roommate conflicts over the years and says the most common issues among college roommates are scheduling conflicts — you’re a morning person, he’s a night owl — and using each other’s belongings without permission. Having a roommate’s boyfriend or girlfriend spend the night in your dorm room is also a major point of contention, for obvious reasons.
We enlisted Ali and two other experts — Audrey Frey, a recent University of California-Berkeley graduate living in Fremont, Calif., and Nikhil Sharma, a Cal State East Bay junior majoring in business — to tackle seven roommate conflicts and offer their solutions. Frey had a different roommate each of the four years she attended Berkeley. Sharma serves on the board of his university’s residential hall association and helps mediate conflicts.
THE FOOD FIGHT
When it comes to food, you and your roommate take turns buying the common items, like eggs and milk. But, lately, you’ve noticed that she’s been dipping into your personal items in the refrigerator, like your Greek yogurt, which isn’t cheap. What do you do?
Frey: Label your food.
Sharma: I always say, "If you want any of my stuff, just ask before, and I’ll most likely say ‘yes.’ But if you don’t ask, and it keeps happening, I’ll report it to the residential adviser."
Ali: It is imperative that you speak to your roommate about how much they can use, what happens when items start running low, what happens when there is no more of the item, and who pays for the replacement.
FEELING LIKE A THIRD WHEEL
Your roommate’s girlfriend is visiting your dorm room. Again. That’s the third weekend this quarter. Doesn’t he realize it’s a small space and listening to them makes you uncomfortable?
Ali: Speak to your roommate in a nonthreatening manner about the impact that his guest is having on you. Suggest developing a specific schedule of when each of you is allowed to have visitors and ask him if there are other places they could go. Flexibility is the key. Express that being able to hear them makes you uncomfortable. But, you also have to compromise and be OK with overnight guests once or twice a quarter.
Frey: If all the PDA in the room is making you uncomfortable, tell him that directly. Remind him that it’s your room, too, and you deserve to feel comfortable. If this is a recurrent problem, remind your roommate to ask permission before having overnight guests. Explain you’ll do the same for him.
Sharma: If it’s in the middle of the night, and you’re trying to sleep, ask them to be quieter or ask them to find somewhere else to go.
THE MESSY FLATMATE
After a year in the dorms, you and your roomie move into an on-campus apartment. But the extra space has brought out the slob in her. Her unwashed dishes are piling up, and you fear they will attract critters soon.
Ali: A very standard rule is that all of the shared spaces in the apartment are to remain clean. Create a task list and schedule a rotation between roommates. If critters decide to live with you because of your roommate’s messiness, it is appropriate for you to ask her to pay for them to be exterminated.
Frey: Tell her as you see it — the apartment is a mess. Chances are she’s already aware of it and probably feels somewhat guilty. If she won’t clean up on her own and needs more prompting, set a cleaning date. Consult both your schedules and find a day of the week or month when you’re both free to clean.
Sharma: This happened to me. My roommate didn’t wash his dishes before Thanksgiving break, and we came back to hundreds of baby flies everywhere. We had to buy a ton of fly swatters to get rid of them. We were direct and told him it was disgusting and that he needed to get his cleaning done. It worked.
And if your dorm mate brought too much stuff from home and it begins to creep into your space?
Sharma: I would just tell him to find a place to put his own stuff, because I’m entitled to my own space.
Frey: If her stuff somehow ends up in areas that are clearly yours, just put it back on her side of the room, let her know where you found the item, and ask her not to leave it there again.
A DIFFERENT LIFESTYLE
You begin your first roommate experience at college and realize that your roommate is gay. You are somewhat concerned, as you do not know any gay people and the thought of sharing a living space is somewhat uncomfortable.
Sharma: Treat your roommate as you would treat anyone else: With respect. If they hit on you and that makes you uncomfortable, just address it like you would anyone else who hits on you by saying, "I’m living with you for the whole year and think this is inappropriate. Please stop."
Frey: Realize that your roommate’s sexual orientation doesn’t change anything about the roommate situation. Once you get to know your roommate, you’ll find that their sexual orientation is only one part of their identity, and their other character traits are what will largely determine whether or not you two are good roommates. As in any roommate relationship, the most important thing is mutual respect. If you’re really uncomfortable, seek resources and educate yourself. If you treat your roommate awkwardly or strangely, she’ll probably feel hurt and respond in the same way.
Ali: Open your mind. Get over yourself. If you want to go to college, there is no way around it. You are going to meet people with different lifestyles.
Don’t expect a move, either. If you immediately demand to be moved from your room to a different room because of not agreeing with someone else’s lifestyle, it will not happen. Most universities stand by their nondiscriminatory values and mission and work to create an open and welcoming educational community.
THE COUCH CONFLICT
Three roommates pool their money to buy a new couch for the apartment. When they disband at the end of the school year, who gets the couch?
Ali: If one roommate is attached to the couch, then they should consider purchasing the couch from the remaining roommates. However, the roommate that is purchasing the couch shouldn’t expect to get the full amount that was originally paid, as the couch has now devalued from the original cost.
Frey: A lot of people don’t want their stuff at the end of the year so they decide to give it away to Goodwill or leave it on the street for someone to claim.
Sharma: Sell it and split the money three ways. Or if you’re going to live together again next year, put it in storage until then.
A POT PROBLEM
Midway through the semester, you realize that your roommate smokes marijuana and he likes to do it in your room. What should you do?
Sharma: Tell him or her, "If you want to drink or smoke, do it off campus."
Frey: Before you report your roommate, see if you can talk things out. Tell him you don’t want him to smoke in the room anymore and explain that you have a right to a smoke-free environment, and chances are your university has a no-drug policy. Let him know that if you catch him smoking in the room again, you’re going to have to report him.
Ali: As popular as marijuana is, it is still illegal, and if you do not want to jeopardize your housing and educational endeavors, then it is important that you immediately remove yourself from the situation. You may want to consider speaking with your roommate and asking him to not smoke in your room to ensure that you are not involved in any policy violations that will result in the university pursuing judicial sanctions against you. If that fails, contact campus police or a housing staff member to document the situation.
—Jessica Yadegaran / Contra Costa Times