Arriving in a dorm for the first time is a thrilling moment. Living independently away from home, being around so many new people – all that seems like an exciting adventure. However, finding yourself in a small space with a complete stranger (or several) might be difficult at first. If you have ever shared a room with a sibling, you have a head start, but this isn't enough as students come from different backgrounds, have different family traditions, habits, and preferences. Their expectations and attitudes towards what is acceptable or what is not also vary widely. This blog will be a helpful primer on living in a dorm. If you have already lived on campus, you still might find it a helpful refresher.
Discuss the ground rules from the get-go
Sharing your expectations with your roommates can save you all a lot of trouble in the future. Discuss how shared and personal space will be kept, what items are okay to share and which are off-limits, when is it okay to invite visitors or overnight guests, what are the study hours, what is the standard light out time, should you leave the room when your roommate has a call from home, etc.
You might even get a set of rules written or printed out on a wall for reference. This may sound kind of lame, but believe me, you won't regret doing it. This doesn't mean that the rules are set in stone. Revise these policies and compromise if you feel something isn't working for everyone in the room.
Assign the chores
Discuss how you will keep the place tidy and hold each other accountable if anything is amiss. Consider keeping a chore board, including washing dishes, sweeping/vacuuming the floor, taking the trash out, etc. Define what "clean" is for every one of you and come to a definition that all the roommates can agree on.
Take turns doing chores or distribute areas of responsibility – whichever suits you all. I used to live with a super-neat and house proud girl who cleaned the room twice as often as I would. I tried to compensate by cooking for us, washing dishes, and taking the trash out. That worked for us since everyone did what they liked most.
Respect boundaries and privacy
The golden rule of communal living is "It never hurts to ask." Thinking of inviting a classmate over for a cup of tea later than usual? Text your roommate to ask if it's okay. Going to use the shower for 40 minutes straight for impromptu SPA treatments? Inform your roommate and ask if you can have a bathroom to yourself for all this time. Want to pick up and read their book? Ask. Planning a party in your room? Ask! Even if your roommate has never been against rowdy gatherings before, this time might be different. They might have an assignment deadline looming. You don't want them hating you while they frantically search paper writers for hire sitting in the corner with a sour face.
This approach has another benefit. Your roommate is likely to mirror your behavior. By asking them about something, you send them a message that such things should be asked of you as well.
Plan bonding with your roommates
Get to know the people you are going to live with for the entirety of the school year. Go and have a pizza together, organize a movie night in your room, go to a campus event or pick any other activity you all will enjoy. You don't necessarily have to become best friends. Sometimes roommates are just that – roommates. You can have different preferences and lifestyles. The important thing is to respect each other's boundaries, have empathy, be civil and cooperative.
Accept conflicts as a normal learning process
It's important to remember that sharing a small space with another person is as stressful and challenging for your roommate as it is for you. Clashes are inevitable. However, they are a part of life, and you must learn how to handle them as a grown-up. Consider this a part of your unofficial college curriculum.
Conflicts help you see how your actions affect others and how your behaviors might be perceived by people around you. Treating conflicts as learning opportunities will help you avoid unnecessary drama.
Consult your resident advisor
If you cannot resolve your conflict peacefully, ask your Resident Advisor for help. They are the students living in a dorm like yourself, only they have been instructed and employed by the university to offer advice and assistance to other residents. They should facilitate dialogue between roommates and make sure everyone is comfortable with the resulting arrangements.
If RA's assistance isn't enough, you can ask your Resident Director or Area Coordinator to step in. They have more experience and more authority. However, remember that even they cannot force anyone to move out. Suppose you and your roommate are absolutely incompatible. In that case, a room change can be used as a last resort, but prepare that you might be the one leaving for another place.
Use your space wisely
Okay, now to your individual space. You will have to level up your organizing skills because the area is very limited in the dorm room. Invest in collapsible storage containers. With their help, you can organize closet shelves, make better use of the space under your bed, or just have them handy at your bedside instead of a shapeless pile of stuff on the floor – one reason less for the arguments with your roommates.
Another great idea is to stock up on hooks that stick to the wall (if your college allows them) – for clothes, towels, key chains, jewelry, and other odds and ends. Wall shelves near your bed will also add the oh-so-needed storage space for books and essentials.
Don't bring too much stuff
First of all, half the clothes that you have packed. I promise, you won't need as much. Planning for every season can be very difficult. Still, you must keep in mind the limited storage capacities of your (probably shared) closet in the dorm. Next, coordinate with your roommates who brings what when it comes to expensive and bulky appliances that can be shared: mini-fridges, mixers, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, coffee-makers, etc.
Finally, don't treat your university's "What to bring" list as your high school supply list. This is a purely FYI thing, not a compulsory inventory where you have to check every item. Box shelves are also handy if you have a place for them. Make sure you use all those things to organize your space – not to hog the common areas.
Learn about your new environment
Before packing or even planning shopping for college, get as much information as possible about the available amenities. For example, does your place have communal or individual bathrooms? For a communal one, you will need a bathrobe or a towel wrap that closes securely, shower slippers, and a shower caddy. Organizing expert Sophia Lee advises on getting a mesh one to avoid water gathering in the plastic grooves.
What about the kitchen? What appliances are provided? What is allowed to bring? What is allowed to use in the bedrooms? Are extension cords allowed? And so on.
Look up a floor plan for your future dorm on the college website. Look for specific measurements if they are available. This will give you some idea of how much space you will have, what furniture is provided and what you will need to buy, whether beds are elevated for more storage space, etc.
Keep yourself safe
Although most campuses have security officers on the premises and are relatively safe, crimes still happen, so don't let your guard down. If you are planning to return late from the library or a party, get a friend to accompany you or at least message your roommate and inform them that you are on your way.
Stay vigilant at parties, don't leave your drink unattended, and always have a friend or a trusted acquaintance along with you so you could watch out for each other.
Last but not least: follow your college's guidelines concerning COVID-19 restrictions. As Rachael Piltch-Loeb, public health preparedness fellow at Harvard, warns the students, until the coronavirus "is controlled or more limited globally, it's not going away." Get vaccinated and tested before moving in, wear masks where required, don't attend parties if they are unauthorized, and stay in your room if you feel any symptoms.
College flies by, so stay positive and don't let anything spoil the experience for you. Your roommates might get on your nerves sometimes but believe it or not, you will remember this time fondly years from now!