Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dear College Students

September 6, 2012
 When you take that first step of adult independence--the step into college dorm life, it can be a little nerve-wracking, but really empowering.  You start off thinking, "Can I do this?  What if something goes wrong?  Am I really prepared am I to live on my own?"  You also start thinking, "I can go to bed whenever I want!  I can make my my own rules.  I can set my own schedule and go out when I want and have all-night movie marathons with my friends and watch the sunrise--even on a school night if I choose."  Some of you might even be thinking about other choices you have the opportunity to make without Mom and Dad looking over your shoulder.

When your first step is the dorms, you have the perfect opportunity to explore all of these new freedoms while keeping just a hint of a safety net.  There are people there to check in on you and to help negotiate tricky roommate disputes.  You have the freedom to come and go as you please, but you are free from some of the other responsibilities of the glamorous "grown-up" life, like cleaning your own bathroom or worrying about budgeting for the utility bills. If you're lucky, that first year in the dorms gives you just enough freedom to let you realize you really can make it on your own.

And then you hit year two.  Dorm living was such a success that you decide you're ready to take the next step and move into an apartment with a few friends--friends you know and love.  People you love spending all your time with.  You make your plans and shop for your apartment together.  You talk about how you'll furnish it and really create your shared living space.  And you agree that since you are all such good friends, everything will be perfect.


Except, living with someone in the dorms is different than living with someone in an apartment.  Sure, there are potential problems with a dorm mate--what time is lights out, what do you do if your he or she has a guest over and you're suddenly a third wheel in your own room?  But living in an apartment together definitely ups the ante.  Why?  Because it's as if you have taken your relationship to a new level.  There are new situations that arise and there is new terrain to negotiate.  As a matter of fact, you would do well to think of moving in together as a real relationship.  Rooming in the dorms?  That's casual dating.  Living in an apartment together means things are serious now.  What's the best way to keep a serious relationship healthy?  Communication, communication, and communication.  Without good communication you could wind up with hurt feelings, anger, frustration, and even loneliness.  You could even find yourself headed for a break-up of sorts. But breaking up with an apartment mate sometimes means lingering months after the flame has died out.  A lease can be a tricky thing to break, or at the very least, an expensive one.

So, how do you keep the communication alive?  A few simple ideas that can help:

1.  It's common courtesy to let your roommates (or boyfriend/girlfriend, or husband/wife--whomever you share your space with) know where you're going and when you might be back.  I don't mean you have to ask permission, and I don't mean you can't be spontaneous.  What I do mean is don't make your friends worry about you and wonder if something's become of you if you're not home.  Not only is it courteous, but it's a smart precaution for you.

2.  It's also common courtesy to be respectful of your shared space.  If you have a boyfriend you'd like to invite over, or if you're hosting a horror movie night for seventeen of your closest friends,  it wouldn't be unreasonable for your roommates to be upset if they didn't know about it ahead of time.  Yes, it's your home, but it's their home, too. If one of your roommates has a huge paper due the next day and she can't get any studying or sleeping done because of the shrieks coming from the living room, you've put them in an uncomfortable and frustrating situation.

3.  Just like any 'couples' relationship, you want to carve out fun time with your roommates, but don't forget to save some time for 'me' space.  Most of us benefit from spending a little time communing with ourselves, getting to know ourselves, and helping ourselves grow as individuals.  If you spend all your time as part of a group, sometimes you risk losing yourself.

4.  BUT do find the fun.  Find the things you love to do together, and also allow yourself to have an open mind about new experiences that your roommates can introduce you to.  If your roommate's an art major, let them show you around a local artist's show.  If your roommate's studying classical music and you've never been to a concert that wasn't all about the hottest new indie band, try an evening of old, old school with them.  You get the idea.  You never know what might strike your fancy if you don't give it a try. 
**If there are multiple roommates, sometimes there's a tendency to pair off, or even worse break off into configuration where one roommate feels left out or like the 'back up' plan.  Be respectful of this possibility and make every effort to avoid this.  You wouldn't want to be the one who feels like they're flying solo in an apartment full of people--work to make sure none of your roommates feel like that either.

5.  Figure out a time once a week--a regular date--when you can all have a 'family meeting'.  Touch bases, negotiate issues that have come up during the week, figure out what chores everyone's going to take responsibility for doing that week (taking out the trash, for example, or cleaning the tub), and give each other a heads-up about the upcoming week's events.  If you feel a nasty cold coming on, or if you've got a speech and three papers due and two mid-terms in a week when your work has decided to schedule you an additional 10 hours on top of your normal 15, your roommates deserve to know.  A little bit of information ahead of time does wonders to avoid exploding at each other later in the week when exhaustion sets in and emotions and stress levels are high.  Agree in these meetings to simple set of civil rules:  no yelling, no accusing, no talking over one another, no eye-rolling, no holding in issues that might lead to resentment further down the road.  You know, agree to the rules of GOOD communication.  It takes practice, so PRACTICE.  I promise it will carry over into your other relationships now and in the future.  You don't always have to come to complete consensus, but you do have to figure out how to create solutions and compromises that everyone can work with.

6.  Money can be hugely problematic.  Read any contemporary magazine article on relationships and you'll see that the biggest issue that drives couples apart is disagreements over money--how it's spent, how it's saved.  This is not any different in any group of people who have some communal responsibilities.  You probably don't have to share funds for your clothes or your own personal toiletries, but if you're sharing a kitchen, you're probably sharing the grocery bill.  Toilet paper?  Dish washing detergent? Yeah, you're probably sharing that, too.  No need to have four different pepper shakers if there are four of you living together, right?  So it's reasonable that in those weekly family meetings, you make a budget that suits you all.  If you all pitch in together to stock your cupboards and your fridge with food to sustain you all, be sure you know what everyone is willing and able to contribute.  But if your favorite snack food is imported Belgium chocolate and no one else eats it, don't put that one the community shopping list and make everyone else chip in.  Similarly, if your roommate buys specialty tray of gourmet cheeses and you have a dairy allergy, you shouldn't be expected to fund their cheese obsession.

7.  And all those things you buy with your own money?  You like them, right?  You must, presumably, or you wouldn't have purchased them.  Your roommates probably have similar attachments to the things they've bought.  So, tempting as it might be, don't grab that new sweater out of the roomie's closet for your upcoming date tonight because she's not around and you're 'sure she won't mind'.  I don't care how generous you are or your roommate is, asking to take or borrow what is not yours still hasn't gone out of style. 

Negotiating how to deal with roommates can be tricky and sometimes a little frustrating.  It's all about learning to bring together various communication styles to make them work the most effectively with those people at that time.  The bonus is that if you learn to navigate the roommate relationships, that will only serve as practice for your future relationships--relationships with your boss and co-workers, relationships with your future partner, with the other moms and dads on the PTA.  College apartment living is one more step into your future.  You're on your way!

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