Friend or foe article image
Friend or foe?
By Beth English '07 MALS, UNCG magazine editor
Illustration by Eric Peterson, Stir Creative
Photography by Chris English, photography editor

For incoming students, meeting your college roommate could be the best thing that happens to you. Or the worst. No matter what, it’s all a part of your college education.

On move-in day, similar scenes play out every year. Boxes, laundry baskets, bags and rolls of carpet are stacked along College Avenue and other campus streets, while parents and students lug televisions and microwaves into small residence hall rooms.

Once inside, families cluster around their student and make up the bed, put away clothes and check the cleanliness of the shelves. At the same time, another family is helping their freshman do the exact same thing on the other side of the room.

For many of these students, it’s the first time they’ve met their roommate.

“She’s a complete stranger,” said Samantha Martino, a few weeks before coming to campus to start her freshman year. “It’s scary. You roll up one day and say, ‘Hi, we’re going to live together.’”

Few things are as fraught with the potential for conflict – and potential for valuable life lessons – as the college roommate experience.

It’s a tough situation: A 15’ by 12’ room. Living away from family, maybe for the first time. A wonderfully diverse campus, which translates into cultural differences.

“It’s going to be a transition, for sure,” said Liz Jodoin, a staff counselor with Student Health Services. “All of college is a transition.”

It can be a bit of an adjustment to share a bathroom with a hall full of strangers. And then there is the roommate factor.

“A lot of students have always had their own rooms. Several don’t know how to share,” Jodoin said. Add to that cultural differences (music, food, etc.), differences in cleanliness, different sleep schedules, and additional friends or significant others coming over often, and you have a recipe for conflict.

“It’s part of the college experience,” she said. “I always tell students, college is a bunch of hoops to jump through, but that’s life. There are always hoops.”

Opposites attract?

In early August, Samantha Martino talked with her future roommate, Lauren Martin, for the first time. Her previous roommate-to-be asked Samantha to switch so she could room with someone she met at SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising and Registration). Samantha agreed – it didn’t seem like a good way to start a roommate relationship if she didn’t make the switch.

So she shifted gears and got a new, randomly assigned roommate.

“We are very different people,” she said of Lauren. “She seems really nice. I guess opposites attract.”

Samantha Martino, in the yellow tank top, and her roommate Lauren Martin, in the green shirt, unpack their belongings with a little help from their families. Samantha Martino, in the yellow tank top, and her roommate Lauren Martin, in the green shirt, unpack their belongings with a little help from their families. It was the first time the two women had met. “It’s less awkward than I thought it would be,” Samantha said.

Samantha was feeling the anxiety of the unknown, with the start of the semester in a few short days.

To counteract a potential area of conflict, the women agreed to each bring their own television and refrigerator. “I don’t know about the craziness of taking each other’s stuff,” Samantha said.

Living in Mendenhall, they will have to share a sink and a walk-in closet.

“I think we’ll hang out together at first, and then branch out,” she said. “I expect us to be friends but not best friends.”

On move-in day, the women laughed about how similar their last names are and discovered they both love dogs.

“It’s less awkward than I thought it would be,” Samantha said during a momentary break. “They (Lauren and her family) are really nice.”

Now vs. then

Some of this should sound familiar. After all, if you lived on campus, you probably had a roommate.

Some things are different today, however. Technology, for one. Parents, for another.

Years ago, when future Spartans received the name of their roommate-to-be, they wrote one another letters or made phone calls. Today, students immediately jump on Facebook and try to learn all they can. Learning through those channels opens up expectations about who the other person is and what your future relationship might look like.

Technology also leaks into day-to-day communication. Roommate bugging you? Text them your complaint. That doesn’t work? Gripe about them on Facebook.

“Technology doesn’t help communication skills. In my personal view, technology breeds avoidance,” Jodoin said. “Nothing gets resolved. It blows up bigger.”

Tony Farmer, coordinator for residence life at Reynolds Hall last year, has seen the negative effects first-hand. “We want them to communicate, to develop conflict resolution skills,” he said. “A lot of times we’ll ask, ‘Have you talked to them?’ They’ll say, ‘No, but I texted them and didn’t hear anything back.’”

Farmer also experienced the “helicopter parent” syndrome. “It’s not uncommon to get calls from parents,” he said. And sometimes those calls come in even before the academic year starts. Students are worried about living with someone who is different from them.

Jodoin has also noticed that parents are more involved now. In a lot of ways, that’s great, she said. “But do students lose opportunities to fight their own battles?”

Unfamiliar territory

Elena Gagon spent several years living in Utah with her family and had always planned to go to college there. But her mother got a job in Virginia last year and those college dreams changed.

Her mother, Eleanor, is a UNCG alumna and recommended Elena take a tour of her alma mater. That’s all it took.

“It was fantastic,” Elena said. “The community, the setting.” With plans to major in music education and possibly flute performance, she signed up to live in Grogan, which has a community of music majors.

“I’m at least hopeful we can have music in common,” she said about her roommate, Gretchen Krupp, a few weeks before classes started. “I’m still really nervous to be living with her. Anxious.”

Elena Gagon, in the turquoise shirt, and roommate Gretchen Krupp, in the bright pink shirt, work together putting away odds and ends and calling in help to repair a broken headboard. Elena Gagon, in the turquoise shirt, and roommate Gretchen Krupp, in the bright pink shirt, work together putting away odds and ends and calling in help to repair a broken headboard.

Elena describes herself as an only child who has moved around quite a lot. In her mind, she’s got the new location thing down pat.

“It’s the living with someone I don’t know that makes me nervous.”

But she and Gretchen, who is also from Virginia, did meet for lunch during the summer and things seemed to be off to a good start.

“I hadn’t found her in searches, so I was trying to pick her out of a crowd when we met. She was so nice and excited to meet me. We started right off. We both had a list of questions.”

And they talked through all the things they thought they needed to address.

“I told her about the only-child thing. I’m open to sharing whatever, just give me a little time,” she said. “We talked about who needed caffeine first thing in the morning.”

They arranged to buy matching-color bedding and talked about visitors to the room. Since Elena doesn’t know anyone in North Carolina, she’s open to meeting new friends.

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Hit list
Most common issues that upset roommates:

  • Lack of privacy – never leaves the room or will go through your things
  • Using items that belong to the other person
  • Stolen items
  • Sharing of food
  • Cleanliness
  • Not locking doors
  • Feeling ignored by their roommate if they came in expecting to be best friends
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Roommate's friends or significant others coming over/staying over

(Compiled from Liz Jodoin and Tony Farmer)

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