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Published: Sunday, 9/4/2005

Sharing a room gives college students lessons in life, cultures

BY JEREMY LEMER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
BGSU roommates Ashley Kiffmeyer, left, and Jennie Rubini find a comfort level in their dorm. BGSU roommates Ashley Kiffmeyer, left, and Jennie Rubini find a comfort level in their dorm.
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When Tim Eisenmann started at Bowling Green State University in the fall of 2001, he decided to live with Jim, a longtime friend from Brecksville High School in suburban Cleveland. Despite their friendship, sharing a room was not always easy.

He s 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Mr. Eisenmann said of his roommate. He took up a lot of space in a small room.

Three years later, though, that s water under the bridge. They live in a house with four other people and remain good friends. You go to college to meet the guys who will be at your wedding, Mr. Eisenmann said. We ll be at each other s weddings.

Sharing a room as an undergraduate is a rite of passage for students. It builds character, strengthens personal resolve, and inures them to the grating sound of snoring. But small spaces and strong personalities can cause friction and sometimes even result in physical violence.

On Aug. 23, a BGSU student was accused of attacking her roommate with a hot clothes iron. The alleged attacker was enraged by suspicions of being recorded by a hidden camera.

While experts said the incident was unusual, it has brought renewed attention to college housing and made it clear that as technology advances, colleges require procedures to make living arrangements work smoothly.

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon roomed together at Harvard and went on to become a famous Hollywood duo. Tommy Lee Jones shilled for his old Harvard roommate, Al Gore, in the 2000 presidential election. But new developments are changing the experience of sharing rooms on campus and even making some colleges reconsider their commitment to the idea.

Among the complicating factors is the rise of facebook.com, a Web site launched in 2004 that allows college students to post information about themselves anything from hobbies to sexual orientation and check out information about other people at their college. While boosting students social lives, the popular site has led to unforeseen problems.

In the last few weeks alone, Ohio State University has had five requests for room swaps after students tracked down their prospective roommates online and apparently found them unappealing.

The Internet in general has created issues for university housing administrators, including a decline in sociability among students, while Web cameras inside dormitory rooms have generated new concerns about privacy.

On top of all that, generational changes have led college housing authorities and, more importantly, parents to question shared rooms for freshmen.

Parents are now paying so much for their children s education, said Alan Levy, director of public affairs at the University of Michigan housing office, that they feel they have every right to demand everything for their children. As a result, colleges are coming under pressure to build more single-occupancy rooms.

This year, for the first time, BGSU has about 50 freshmen single rooms as part of a pilot program to assess the direction of new building projects.

Nonetheless, the Internet has opened up new possibilities for reinvigorating the shared-room system as well.

In March, the University of Georgia adopted a Web-based system that enables students to post personal information in order to identify an ideal roommate. BGSU is looking closely at the potential of such systems, said Linda Newman, director of residence life.

For many colleges, the experience of sharing a room with a stranger or even a friend is still seen as a vital part of the education that students receive at university.

I am a very strong believer that asking two students to share a room and learn how to cooperate with one another is an inherently good learning experience, said Dustin Brentlinger, associate dean for student affairs at Heidelberg College in Tiffin. He said students learn to understand other points of view.

The evidence appears to back such statements.

Research conducted by experts from Harvard, Michigan, and Northwestern universities in 2003 showed white students randomly assigned black roommates were more likely to report comfortable interactions with members of other ethnic groups in later years.

Colleges go to enormous lengths to ensure that the dorm experience for students is a positive one. Most have residence life departments with full-time staff and extensive systems to make room-sharing go smoothly.

Detailed codes of conduct and charters of student rights distributed to students and readily available on college Web sites are standard, and many universities use surveys to help place students with compatible roommates.

Though there is no guarantee of success, clear guidelines, roommate-matching efforts, and orientation events help reduce anxiety and problems.

Not knowing your roommate can be an advantage as well, said Ashley Kiffmeyer, a sophomore at BGSU, who chose to live with Jennie Rubini this year after a good experience with a different person last year.

We know each other well enough, Ms. Kiffmeyer said, wearing a top borrowed from her roommate and standing on a pile of discarded clothes, but not too well so that we drive each other crazy.

Still problems occur.

When you put 10,000 students from all over the U.S. and all over the world together, you are going to have conflict and clashes, Mr. Levy of UM said, everything from racial incidents to sexual harassment to your garden variety insensitivity.

Housing officials say it is often the small things that lead to friction: A roommate plays music too loud or eats another s food without permission.

When problems arise, the response process at most universities would put to shame the legal systems of many developing countries. Resident advisers who live on the same floors are the first line of defense, followed closely by full-time directors in each residence hall.

Evan Myers, a sophomore resident adviser at the University of Toledo, said RAs receive two weeks of training that includes roommate conflict-resolution procedures.

The only way to learn to deal with it is to actually be in it, he said.

If that fails, however, various arbitration procedures are available through college housing and student life programs. The University of Michigan, for example, has its own office of student conflict resolution.

Communication is crucial in defusing problems, residence life staff say. Nevertheless, room swaps are routine. At UT, for example, about 590, or 20 percent of some 2,955 students housed there, swapped roommates last year.

Whatever the technological advances and policy changes, Mr. Kremer of Ohio State said, the real enemy of success and satisfaction at college is isolation, and a roommate is great antidote for that.



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