A college education is more than what you learn in the lecture halls. Sometimes, the greatest lessons are learned elsewhere on campus -- like, say, in your dorm room. Sharing a space that may be smaller than your bedroom at home with another person (or several people) is a crash course in human relations and social psychology. Your tiny room becomes a lab where your social skills are put to a variety of surprisingly difficult tests.
For many dorm dwellers, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of privacy. Between shared closets, showers and laundry facilities, you may feel like your entire life is on display. Even best friends sometimes recoil from intimacy overload.
But communal living doesn't have to mean waking to find your roommate's buddies sleeping on your floor. How can you carve out personal time and space and set up ground rules to make living in the dorm's cramped quarters a bit easier?
Don't Bring Too Much Stuff
College gives you the opportunity to break with your high school image and establish a new identity. So, don't eat up space in your tiny dorm room with items from your past. The less stuff you have, the more privacy you have. Imagine how hard it is to feel a sense personal space if your roommate's hanging plant eclipses your photo display. If you want to bring items of emotional value from home, just be practical about it. Leave the medals you won at the state finals track meet, but bring the state champion T-shirt.
The same rule applies to furnishings. A bed and desk are standard issue in the typical dorm room. They may not be as nice as the ones you had at home, but they're there and can't be removed to make room for yours. So, leave your computer station at your parents' house.
Think Twice About Rooming With a Friend
Sharing a dorm room with a longtime friend may seem like the ideal situation, but you'd be surprised how difficult it can sometimes be to live in such close quarters with your BFF. Friendship comes with certain expectations that don't exist between two strangers. And just because you've been besties since the sixth grade doesn't mean you have identical needs when it comes to personal space and alone time.
Take sharing, for example. Suppose your friend subscribes to the "share and share alike" philosophy regarding clothes, food and, well, everything, but you like to keep some personal items personal. It's easier to set boundaries upfront with a roommate you don't already know than it is to create new boundaries with a roommate who's been your friend for years. Feelings get hurt, and before you know it, the two of you aren't speaking because she shared her apples with you but you have your granola bars locked in your desk.
Also, as we mentioned before, perhaps you want to start fresh and dispense with that old high school image. It can be harder to break free of your old self when an old friend bunks in the loft above your head.
Balance Shared and Individual Interests
When you were younger, were you ever asked (and possibly bribed) to be "friends" with another child who lacked playmates? If you were a new student, did your teacher assign you a "buddy" to help you through the first days? With luck, the arrangements resulted in real friendships. At the very least, you learned your way to your classes without getting lost.
Dorm mates, especially if they're new to school or to the area, sometimes fall into similar roles. They act as co-pilots helping each other navigate the twisting roads of college life, not to mention the actual roads around town. Along the way, they might find shared interests and common concerns.
That kind of relationship is convenient, and can be comforting as well. However, it can also lead to social and emotional static cling. Just because you and a roommate share a food science class doesn't mean she wants to be your partner in your cheese mold project, for instance. Giving a dorm mate a ride to the mall isn't necessarily an invitation to tag along as you shop for jeans.
To foster privacy and personal growth, roommates need to establish individual social and emotional resources apart from each other. Team up with another classmate on that cheese making project. Tactfully encourage a clingy roommate to join a club that fits his or her interests. It's great to spend time together, but some time apart is needed as well.
Agree on Shared and Personal Possessions
Space in the dorm is very limited and so are students' budgets. One solution to both problems is for roommates to bring or buy items to share. Between your table lamp and curtain and your roommate's microwave oven and dishes, you can furnish your dorm at a considerable savings. Some roommates share responsibilities for common needs: One person buys the laundry detergent; the other supplies the quarters for the washing machines.
By the same token, it's a good idea to specify which items are personal property. Views on what's personal and what isn't vary. Don't assume your roommate knows your printer is off limits, for example. Ask before using a roommate's things, unless you're sure they're meant to be shared.
You don't want to be unreasonable, of course. Make exceptions for emergencies. Do you want your roommate waking you at 1 a.m. to ask to use your printer for a term paper that's due at 8 a.m.?
You might want to put your name on your things, whether those things are private or shared. This will prevent problems when you and you roommate part ways.
Tell Friends About House Rules
Dorm mates aren't the only people to use dorms. Crowded though it may be, the room may host study sessions, meals and parties. Make sure your visitors know the house rules regarding privacy. Keep an eye on younger siblings and other children who haven't yet grasped the concept of privacy. Don't be shy about enforcing a roommate's rules, even if you or your friends don't understand them.
Having friends over can also require a special set of rules to prevent potential invasions of privacy. A roommate who's an early riser may not want friends phoning at 11:30 p.m. Ask roommates how they feel about visitors sitting on their bed or browsing through their books. Again, you might make certain allowances for the demands of friendship. If your friend asks for a snack before rushing off to work, you might give her a carton of your roommate's yogurt. But just be sure to replace it as soon as possible, with a few more cartons as interest on the loan.
Protect Computer Files
In college, you'll definitely send, receive and store a lot of information on your computer. And living in a dorm only increases the chances that other people will have access to your computer. So, it's wise to take precautions to safeguard information you'd rather keep private. You can buy software that blocks unauthorized users from accessing your hard drive and removable storage disks, and that also converts files to read-only versions to keep them from being changed.
The same vigilance is needed if your computer is hooked up to a campus network. The school protects individual file storage space and e-mail accounts by requiring users to register their computers and to create passwords. Users have a concomitant responsibility: to change passwords, to log out when ending a session, and to take care where they save their data. For example, the plans for your programmable lawn mower that you save in your robotics team directory can be viewed by anyone with access to that directory.
Accommodate Each Other's Schedules
Ideally, for privacy, roommates' schedules allow each of them to use the dorm when they want, as they want without getting in each other's way. In reality, compromises and accommodations must be made. Suppose you study best in the evenings while listening to music, just when your roommate is ready to turn in. You might head for the library with your MP3 player and headphones. Meanwhile, your roommate might set out his clothes and books and fix his bagel and cream cheese for breakfast before going to bed, to slip out noiselessly the next morning while you sleep.
If you should be lucky enough to have a "private" bathroom, meaning you share it with only three to five other people, you may want to work out a similar arrangement for showering or putting on makeup. You might even put the schedule in writing.
Having guests in the dorm can also be a logistical challenge, with more schedules to accommodate. Fortunately, guests have dorms and sometimes houses of their own. So let them play host to pay you back.
Manage Space Strategically
While you don't have much space in a dorm, you can still arrange it to minimize intrusive sights and sounds. One simple fix is setting up a folding screen between each roommate's living area. Beaded or fabric curtains are another option. Sliding panels are more substantial, standing about 7 feet (2 meters) tall. They can also be more expensive. Use rugs and wall hangings to absorb sound.
You can also arrange existing furniture to maximize privacy. Move the beds to diagonally opposite corners. Then build walls by placing a chest of drawers, a desk or a bookshelf facing the bed a few feet away. Top with a microwave oven, a row of books or a potted plant to add height. One disadvantage to this type of arrangement is that you may lose precious space. It can also make for some inconvenient traffic patterns.
Many schools give you the option of lofting one bed, which simply resembles a bunk bed without the bottom bunk. This not only allows more privacy for the loftee, but frees up floor space -- to hang a curtain and make a changing room beneath the bed, perhaps.
Remember that you don't have to share space equally. If one person feels he or she can get by with a smaller space, it's an act of kindness to let the dorm mate appropriate the larger share. It's also a bargaining chip if a favor is needed.
Get Out of the Dorm When Possible
Some privacy issues can be resolved if you remember that dorms are designed as a place to park yourself and your stuff when not otherwise occupied. They're not meant to be a home away from home. For example, the dorm isn't the only place, and often not the best place, to study. The library is quieter; the stacks (shelved books) and special collections are especially secluded. Coffee shops and cafes have a cheerier, more interesting environment. They're also good places to mix with the locals and fellow matriculants. On nice days, grab a blanket and head for a shady hillside or local park.
Plus, there's more to college studies than textbooks and term papers. Just about every department has an organization or program for professional development, from the literary magazine for English majors to the agricultural honor society for future farmers.
Plus, there's more to college life than studies. On campus or in town, you'll find cultural gatherings, athletic events and volunteer opportunities for every interest.
Reevaluate Your Agreement If Needed
While it might be a good idea to write down your rules, don't write them in stone. There's always the chance that adjustments will be needed. Class schedules usually change from one semester to the next, bringing new requirements that may affect your dorm mates. Your boss may ask you to start working nights. A roommate takes up yoga and needs a quiet place to practice.
While it may seem frustrating at the time, trying to resolve differences and renegotiate the rules with your roommates is great learning experience. You'll wind up using those same communication and negotiation skills throughout your life -- at work and in your personal affairs.
When working out a new agreement with your roommate, know that effective communication is honest but polite, assertive but not aggressive. Stay on topic and avoid judgments. A willingness to bend can open the door to creative solutions that might be an improvement upon your original agreement.
If you're not dusting regularly, you're letting all kinds of gross things drift around your living space. Get tips on keeping your dorm dust-free.
Author's Note: 10 Privacy Tips for Dorm Living
It's interesting: We live at a time when people post alarmingly intimate photos of themselves on social media, blog on the most mundane details of their daily lives and carry on highly charged conversations on their cell phones in the supermarket. Yet privacy still matters. In fact, because we reveal ourselves in so many ways to so many audiences, willingly or otherwise, we may prize and appreciate the right to privacy more now than ever.
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- PayPro Global, Inc. "Lock My Computer -- More Info." (Aug. 2, 2012) http://www.pc-safety.com/lockmc.html
- Shades Shutters Blinds. "Sliding Panels and Panel Track Blinds." (Aug. 3, 2012) http://www.shadesshuttersblinds.com/sliding-panels.asp
- Verdeyen, Meagan. "Places to Study at Dartmouth." Dartmouth College. 2001. (Aug. 4, 2012) http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/doc/dartmouth_study_places.doc