Life in a Dorm Room

For me, life in a dorm room was a mixture of the crowded bliss of summer camp and the tension-filled hostility of a sibling relationship (but with none of the love to balance things out). I made the best friends of my college years because of proximity in the dorms. It sometimes used to take over half an hour to get down the hall to brush my teeth because of all the people I stopped to talk with on the way. I loved it.

But I did not get along with my roommate.

My home for my freshman year.

My home for my freshman year.

The dorms I was intimately acquainted with at the University of Oregon were about as basic as they come. There was a door. On the wall nearest the door was a wardrobe. Then a twin bed. Then a desk. On the wall facing the door was a window. And that was it, except for the same arrangement on the other wall, a mirror image of that first layout, which held the roommate. I could nearly touch her bed from mine while laying down. There was a yoga mat’s distance between us.

People were all around all the time. My peers. My classmates. Noisy, bookish, athletic, motivated, homesick, party-crazed, outdoorsy, lonely, outgoing, hormonal, demanding, wonderful. My particular dorm had three floors: the first and third with guys and our second floor with women. There were something like 24 of us per floor.

Some general thoughts on dorms

  • They are tiny.
  • The showers are gross.
  • People will drink. Not everyone, but most.
  • Mess in public space bothers everyone. Don’t do it.
  • Lock your door. Why risk it?
  • Don't borrow anything without asking. Ever.
  • Make your space feel like home.

I had chosen to live in the Honors dorm. We all had different majors but were taking some of the same introduction classes through the Honors College, making it a cozy microcosm of the larger swarm of students. I have mixed feelings about dorm placements generally: throwing a pack of strangers together is so likely to be a mess, even when they express similar interests. My general advice for housing preferences would be to steer clear of major-specific housing (after all, you’re here to meet people and broaden your horizons, not to surround yourself with only those pursuing the exact same degree), and to avoid any dorm that is specifically “substance free.” Many of the students housed there are sent there for a reason, i.e. that they’ve had alcohol-related problems in high school. I’ve heard from several sources around the country that the substance free dorms are the worst for parties and noise.

I arrived on campus knowing exactly no one. In fact, I didn’t know anyone in the entire state of Oregon. I was starting over. And that felt both freeing and terrifying.

The roommate situation went south almost from the start. Let’s call her Becky. Becky and I did not click. We didn’t fight, we weren’t rude, and we didn’t go out of our ways to be unpleasant to each other. But we did not click. She did some things that drove me crazy (the TV was always on, her Bible friends were often in the room while I was studying, etc), and I'm sure I did things that bothered her as well.  Mostly our problem was just the non-click. By the end of the first semester we were down to saying fewer than 20 words to each other each week. This is not an ideal situation for a first home away from home.

However, what this meant is that I spent most of my in-dorm time in other people’s rooms. I would study sitting on friends’ beds or on their floors. I did some work in the common room as well, and in the quiet basement rooms designed for music practice. This became my routine, and it suited me fine.

I ate breakfast in my room most mornings. I ate cereal or would make instant oatmeal with our mini water heater. These options were cheap and fast, and I wanted the calm of my own space before the day got started. Then I would go to class, and soon built lunch routines with various classmates on each day. I ate almost every dinner with a table of friends from the dorms. Evenings we all gathered in our friends’ room to watch The Daily Show and Colbert Report. Every night, like clockwork.

The roommate situation didn’t keep me from making my room feel at home. I decorated the walls with a combination of photos, posters, tapestries, a plant named Alphonse, letters from home, and some ill-advised but much-beloved hand stencils inspired by an archeology class. The half of the room that belonged to me felt like my home. And the overall experience of dorm life felt like a prolonged sleepover, combined with study hall.  

Practicing ancient art on the dorm room walls

Practicing ancient art on the dorm room walls

Decorating dorm rooms: how not to do it (medium: ochre and saliva on wall)

Decorating dorm rooms: how not to do it (medium: ochre and saliva on wall)

Future posts will contain more information about dealing with roommates and managing your time/space/health/emotions both in the dorm context and more broadly. I hope that for now it’s enough to leave you with the knowledge that I spent a full eight months of my life sleeping within arm’s length of someone I wouldn’t speak to. Of course, that was before my degree in Conflict Resolution. I’m sure things would be different now?


Please share your roommate questions/stories in the comments section, or offer your support for my story of roommate woe. If you lived in the dorms, how was your experience different than mine? If you’re heading that way in the future, what are you most nervous about? Let me know!