Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

College Roommates and Social Contagion

Kids who leave home for the first time to go to college are in for a rude awakening when they experience living with a roommate who may not share their schedule, fashion sense or values.

college-roommatesWhat happens in a small, shared living space is hard to contain in a small, shared living space. Some roommates, in college and in life, drive each other crazy.

Carole and I have an 18-year-old senior waiting anxiously for one or more letters to show up on our mailbox saying she has been accepted to such-and-such college. If she had any real idea about the roommate thing, she would be even more anxious.

My thoughts about college roommates were triggered by a New York Times story written by a a family health doctor titled, “How a College Roommate Can Affect Your Child.”

No matter how much parents wish for a roommate who will inspire your child to be more studious and less contrary, the peer effects we worry about are a lot more serious – bad eating habits, sleep deprivation and binge drinking. And that’s just for starters.

The good news, according to Dr. Perri Klass, is that mental health issues aren’t contagious. The bad news, almost everything else is.

College creates a lot of stress, more or less on purpose. It is a first time for a young person to stand on his or her on two feet, remembering without prompts to get up on time and where he or she left the car keys. Higher-order stress involves life choices about studying, drinking, sex and doing laundry.

roommate-ringBut the biggest stress of all can emanate from the roommate. They can be a great guy or a sweet gal, but almost by definition they will get under your skin. You hang up your clothes; he/she leaves trash everywhere. You want to listen to music; he/she wants to study in peace. You want to date; he/she wants to party until the sun comes up in your room. You like a guy; she has a crush on the same guy.

Klass calls this “social contagion.” A college blog site calls roommates a “necessary evil.”

Roommates challenge each other’s emotional intelligence, especially if one roommate’s behavior goes way over the line or he or she becomes seriously depressed, even suicidal. Coping with this will make the dramas in high school over who wore short skirts seem like, well, kid’s play.

Lots of college students survive this life test with good enough grades to remain in school long enough to choose their own roommates, who will be equally irritating, except you can’t complain because you chose them.

My college roommates in my sophomore and junior years were good guys. Both of them studied and didn’t have any outrageous habits. They may not have been able to say the same thing about me.

My first college roommate fit many of the patterns Klass describes in her article. He wasn’t academically gifted (or interested) and quickly fell behind. He partied. Coming from Southern California, he didn’t like the cool, wet weather in Seattle. He was there because his parents thought a nice religious college would straighten him out.

I never dealt with the academic crash of a roommate because I had a serious medical condition that landed me winter and spring terms living in the college infirmary. My “roommates” were a nurse and a friend laid low by mono. We were the only people in the infirmary. We had separate rooms with separate bathrooms. We got together to eat, study and play cards. I was the only guy on campus living in a co-ed “dorm.”

Other than the two major operations and a month-long convalescence in the hospital, my freshman year was pretty much stress free. However, I wouldn’t recommend it as a way to beat stress or avoid a perturbing roommate.

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