By Maria Aguilar Walls
As a former Resident Assistant (RA), I know a thing or two about roommate conflicts. Nine times out of ten, when a resident would knock on my door asking to talk about a problem, the conversation would be about their roommate. Living in close quarters with another person is difficult, especially when that person might be someone you don’t know all that well. It is almost unavoidable that you will experience some kind of disagreement with them, just as you would with any other friend or family member who you spend a lot of time with. From disagreements about noise and sleep schedules to significant others and cleanliness, I have heard it all. Toward the end of my RA career, nothing really shocked me anymore.
After countless conflict mediations, I picked up on one important trend, which I’m sure my fellow RA’s would agree on. I noticed that the bulk of disagreements on my floor occurred almost immediately after the three major breaks – fall, winter, and spring break. There’s nothing like using a shower you don’t have to wear flip-flops in, sleeping in your own room, and eating a home cooked meal to make you realize that living in the residence halls can be really hard. Additionally, time away often causes students to realize how frustrating living with a roommate can be. They remember how much they love being able to sleep in without hearing another person’s alarm, control how clean their space is, and determine when the lights go out at night. So, when students come back to campus from break, they often have trouble settling back into their “roommate” routine. They can become increasingly frustrated with their roommate, so tension builds up quickly and conflict ensues.
I want to share some tips on roommate tensions from my perspective as an RA. As your students come home for these two upcoming breaks, I hope that this advice helps you to check in with them on how their living situation is going, as well as provide guidance on how to resolve a less than desirable situation. While each situation is unique, these are some strategies I found to be useful across the board:
- Encourage your student to have a conversation with their roommate about expectations at the beginning of the year AND when returning from break. This is something that is often overlooked as students are settling in. Often the thought did not cross their mind to do so, they didn’t think it was necessary, or they didn’t want to start out on an awkward note. Yet, I can’t emphasize enough how important this conversation is. It allows for all parties to voice their priorities before routines get established and habits become formed. It is a chance for roommates to be open and build trust with one another. It also does not have to be confrontational, like some might think. It could be as simple as “Hey, I was thinking it would be a good idea to talk about our routines and living styles. Are there any pet peeves you’d like to share with me or ways that I can be a good roommate to you?”
- Suggest your student take the time to get to know their roommate on a personal level. While not all roommates will become best friends, it is still great for them to make the effort to get to know each other on a personal level. Maybe they could grab a meal at the dining hall together once a week or go to hall events together. Or they could even just ask each other how their week is going. Building this rapport is essential because it helps to create a positive, respectful atmosphere in the room. Most residents feel more compelled to accommodate to their roommate’s needs when they have a personal relationship with them as opposed to being just two strangers sharing a room. Plus, most students find that they have more in common with their roommate than they realized. If they get talking, they might just make a new friend!
- Advise your student to address issues when they occur, instead of allowing frustration to build up. There are many reasons students try to avoid dealing with conflict. Yet, it is much easier to solve a problem when it occurs than to brush it off and hope it will improve on its own, which it rarely does. Instead, tensions build as the semester becomes more stressful and it becomes more difficult to calmly address the issue. In my experience, when Roommate 1 would finally talk to Roommate 2 about a recurring issue, Roommate 2 would almost always explain that they didn’t know they were bothering Roommate 1 and wish that they would’ve talked to them sooner.
- Encourage your student to work through the conflict instead of immediately requesting a room change. While there are disagreements that do warrant a room change, most do not. For many students, this option is appealing because it seems like a quick fix. But, it does not benefit them in the long run. Although confrontation is difficult, it is something your student will face over and over again for the rest of their life. So, it is important to encourage them to practice their communication skills and work through their problem. I found that most issues my residents said they were incapable of handling were ultimately resolved with honesty and compromise.
- Remind your student that, if they live on campus, they can always go to their RA for help. RA’s go through a competitive application process and extensive training before they begin their position, so not only are they thoroughly trained, but they are also committed to the job. Some students feel intimidated or silly going to their RA when they have a problem, but that’s what RAs do. They want to help students and love being part of their development and residence hall experience. They can provide insight and tips that the resident may not have thought of and can relate to them as a peer in ways that you as a family member might not be able to. So, remind your student that their RA is available to them for anything that they may need. They do not have to go through their problems alone!