Ask Amy: Coping With A College Roommate
LYNN NEARY, host:
Within the next few weeks, thousands of parents will move their kids into tightly packed dorm rooms. Chances are entering freshmen have already friended their roommates on Facebook, revealing their ethnicity, gender, home state and sexual preference. So what happens when your teen's college roommate is not what he or she had in mind? Messy, liberal, conservative, black, white or gay -traits that make a diverse student body can also create tension.
Today, we check in with Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" column for the Chicago Tribune on preparing teens to live with a total stranger. If you're a parent, what are you telling your freshman? And if you've been there, done that, how did you make things work with your roommate? Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Amy Dickinson joins us, as she does from time to time. Today, she's with us here in Studio 3A. And it's great to see you in person, Amy.
Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hey, Lynn.
NEARY: So, we're going to begin with the letter that you got from a worried parent. And I'm going to read that whole letter, and then you can - we can talk a little bit about that letter first.
Dear Amy: My 18-year-old son Bob is leaving for his freshman year of college. Bob just received his roommate assignment, and after friending him on Facebook, Bob discovered that his roommate is gay. Bob would prefer a straight roommate. When I called the university to ask if Bob could be assigned another roommate, the housing director intimated that I was persecuting the gay roommate, and that if my son didn't start out rooming with a gay student, then Bob could go to another school. He can put in for a room change during the first two weeks of school if he wants to switch. Bob will room with the assigned roommate.
Is it discrimination when a straight man doesn't want to room with a gay man? Do you think schools should have a policy about this? Signed, worried mom. So what did you tell that worried mom?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, what I told this worried mom is that - well, there were two tings about this letter that concerned me. One was, obviously, I thought it was a little outrageous to - I sided with the school. I understood the school's policy. And - but the first thing that this parent did was she intervened on her son's behalf in a manner that he honestly should handle himself.
Part of the process of handing your child over - you know, it goes way back to nursery school. You know, you have to prepare your child for the next experience as well as you can, and then you need to let them have the experience themselves. And schools have in place mechanisms for dealing with roommate issues. And I appreciate the fact that schools encourage students to room with their assigned roommate and to see how it goes. That's what life is supposed to be like, you know, the whole idea.
One issue is a lot of our kids - I felt this when I drop my own daughter off at school. A lot of our children have never shared a room. I grew up sharing a room, sharing a bathroom. There were eight people, one bathroom. How did we do it? But my daughter never shared a room and almost never had to share a bathroom. And you're dropping your kid off. She ended up in a triple, in a bunk bed. And it really felt like - and the bathroom down the hall and you take the things in a bucket and you're sharing a bathroom with guys.
And, you know, it was very - there are a lot of shocks when it comes to school. But one of the great things about this next phase of life is it's such an opportunity to learn about people you don't know about. My daughter's first roommate was Chinese, literally had come the day before from Beijing. She had never set foot in the United States.
Ms. DICKINSON: Those two had a terrific experience. It was a good match. But you can't know that beforehand. But…
NEARY: And I know that in this letter, you said schools do have certain policies in place. And then in this letter, the mother even mentioned that the school does give kids an opportunity to change within the first two weeks if it looks like it's really going to be a disaster, I guess.
Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And things don't work out for all sorts of reasons. Some kids have - and I pointed it out in my answer to this mom that, you know, sometimes their schedules are so incompatible that they cannot cope living, sharing the same space. And sometimes schools don't do a good job of listening to students' issues and helping them correct their issues.
But the main thing this parent needs to do is, aside from the sexuality issue, which I found - you know, I didn't love this letter. I actually - I - it's obvious that this son is making a lot of assumptions about gay people that really needn't be made and shouldn't be made. And I thought it would be great if the family sort of started there and by asking this young man, you know, what is it that bothers you, and helping him to sort of frame his issue.
Because, you know, when we ask our kids open-ended questions and listen to their answers, they're sort of telling their story and they're telling themselves sometimes what they need to…
Ms. DICKINSON: …what they need to hear.
NEARY: Another interesting thing about this letter that can move us to a broader discussion about the whole idea of roommates is that they learned about this roommate, potential roommate via Facebook. So that has to be really changing…
Ms. DICKINSON: Right.
NEARY: …(unintelligible) the whole experience of discovering your roommate.
Ms. DICKINSON: Right. You remember back in the day when you would exchange a letter. It's like, hi, my name is…
Ms. DICKINSON: …And it was so limited. Your contact - I mean, I didn't even telephone my future roommate when - you know, in the '70s - when the dinosaurs and I went to college. And now, I almost wonder what factor the whole Facebook thing is, with social networking, are these potential roommates - I wonder if they may be know too much about each other.
Because sometimes, part of the process of getting to know someone is the way a person's sort of characteristics unfold slowly, preferably. And now, you know, with Facebook, I think we may know too much about our potential roommates before we live together. You make all sorts of assumptions based on how they present themselves but that's really just a snapshot.
NEARY: Now, you were saying earlier, particularly with regard to this letter that you got, that parents shouldn't intervene too much in this. But is there a way that parents can prep their kids for the experience of sharing a room with someone for the first time, you know, sharing a room with a complete stranger. And you know, depending on who the kid is. Some kids are shy. Some kids are, you know, they're fine, throw them with anybody they'll be okay. But what's another way to prep a kid?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I think the good way to prep a kid for college is the way you prepare them or try to prepare them for any experience they're about to have, which is to ask them questions and then listen to what they say. Ask them, what do you think it's going to be like? You know, it's best, obviously, if you've seen the campus, if you can envision the room because that first glimpse of the room can be quite a shock.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DICKINSON: And you want to ask them - I like the idea of asking a kid to sort of role play with you. And also, well, if you have a problem, what do you think you should do? This is a question that you should ask. You know, hey, what do you think you should do? Like, if you have a problem, where can you go? And let the kid go on the college's Web site and show you, well, each floor has an RA. That person's job is what? And have the kid sort of do a little research and then tell you the RA's job is to get the knock on the door in the night. And then, what do you do? Well, the housing office is here and their job is to help you find the best possible living situation.
But I mean, I think it's a really good idea to ask them to explain to you what would they do if they had a problem. And the answer should not be, call you mom and let you fix it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: We're talking with Amy Dickinson. She's talking about how to help your kids get ready for college, particularly get ready for a roommate. And we're going to take a call now from Jenna(ph). And Jenna is calling from Portland, Oregon.
JENNA (Caller): Hi, there. I went to college in Colorado and I did not meet my roommate prior to moving in with her in the first day. And the minute I met her, I could tell from the clothing she wore to her attitude, to just getting that first impression, that we were not going to be friends. And what I found was actually quite contrary. And it was a very eye-opening experience because even though we had very different backgrounds, very different family experiences, very different religious backgrounds, tons of things that were different in common, we actually became friends.
And one of the things that blossomed from that were all the late-night conversations of laying in bed three feet away from each other in the dark, talking about the profound things. And it really opened my mind that even though you don't come from the same background and you don't seem to have anything in common that you could actually still be very great roommates.
NEARY: Did you stay friends or where you just good roommates, basically?
JENNA: No. We stayed friends throughout college. We were never roommates again, but we ended up having common friends and so we would often see each other at parties and meet each other for coffee and just basically connect again. But part of the reason why we weren't roommates again was that I became an RA.
JENNA: And we did a lot of roommates - talking with them, working through issues. They could always come to us. And it often didn't get to the housing office. Because (unintelligible)…
Ms. DICKINSON: That's what I love.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. That's - and that's the whole idea. If you give it a chance, see what happens, you go through the stages - like, the RA is there for a reason. It's - and you can tell us better. What do RAs do?
JENNA: And sometimes just having that different perspective that they're not able to work it out between the two of them but suddenly you insert an objective opinion or they - the RA can start asking questions and getting them to talk about things that they wouldn't necessarily have talked about on their own.
NEARY: All right. Great. Thanks, Jenna. Thanks for calling.
JENNA: Thank you. Thank you.
NEARY: All right. We're going to take another call from Susan(ph) in Des Moines, Iowa. Hey, Susan. Hi, Susan.
SUSAN (Caller): Hi.
NEARY: Go ahead.
SUSAN: And I just wanted to share an experience to maybe allay other parents' fears. My son is a senior now, but when he was a freshman in college and he had learned about his roommates - we knew some details. But when we moved him out there, we discovered his roommates - he shared with three other boys, and the group was more diverse than we had imagined. There was, you know, a Jewish kid from out East - we're from the Midwest, we're from Iowa. And he moved out there and he's half Hispanic. There was a black young man from Trinidad, and then there was a homosexual boy. And these four boys just run the gambit of a very diverse group. And I think it just really was a wonderful experience for him.
And I think it's important that parents understand our kids were raised in a different generation. They're far more open-minded, and we shouldn't place our values or our perspectives upon them. We should - I agree with the commentator you have that we should let them experience things as they come. I do agree that Facebook sometimes provides more information than is necessary. I would like to see the kids interact more personally.
But I'd like you to know the gay young man is still one of my son's best friends. And although my husband was kind of old-fashioned and maybe a little concerned at first about him having a homosexual roommate, this is one of the most respectful and motivated young men and has been a very good influence on my son. So I'd just like to…
NEARY: All right. Thanks very much, Susan. That's a great story.
NEARY: And that's kind of the way it should work, I guess, ideally.
Ms. DICKINSON: This is an amazing example, Lynn. I mean, listen to this, you know, the diversity of this group is really - and that's what college is about for a lot of people.
NEARY: Let me just remind you you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I got an email here from Lisa. My second year of college in the early '80s, I was returning to the same room I had the first year, but with a new, unknown roommate. I arrived first and put up my save-an-alligator-eat-a-preppy poster, proceeded to leave and go out with friends. When I returned, my new roommate was there in her IZOD shirt with the alligator. My friends and I invited her to come on out to the movies with us and we became great friends.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DICKINSON: That's great. That's great.
NEARY: All right. And we have someone on the line from Jay in Springfield, Missouri. Hi, Jay.
JAY (Caller): Hi. I really like the show, and I agree with everything the guest said. And I'd like to share my experience with some Arabic roommates that I had in college.
I recently graduated, but my freshman year - Tulsa, the University of Tulsa is a, primarily, like engineering and natural sciences oil-type school, and so we have a lot of foreign students from Saudi Arabia and from some other countries coming to learn about petroleum engineering.
And it was great to see - they were my roommates - there's two of them - and I would go in and they would always be very welcoming into their room. And I sat down and ate with them, you know, on the floor in the traditional Arabic style, and we'd be eating McDonald's so it's sort of ironic, you know, this blend of cultures. And it was great to learn about all - you know, they were teaching me their words and teaching me - and I would help them with their grammar, English grammar, so it's a really great experience. And I wouldn't have known that had I, you know, chosen my roommates or had a choice. But - so I want to share that story.
NEARY: Thanks so much, Jay.
Ms. DICKINSON: That's great. And, you know, the fact is most colleges offer students opportunities to choose, in a basic sense, their living situation. You could live in a healthy living dorm where there's no tobacco use or alcohol. You could choose to live on a single sex floor or a coed floor. And I think that's, you know, that's great if you want to choose sort of basic lifestyle arrangements.
But I love what you just said because if your parents, for instance, had fixed that for you in advance, if you had known all of that, you fixed it in advance, you've never would have had this experience.
NEARY: And here's one from Ally(ph) in Kansas City, Missouri. On the topic of interesting college roommates, I'm an alumni of the Kansas City Art Institute so there was the potential for all kinds of interesting and strange roommate options. So when I first my freshman roommate, I was extremely surprised to learn that she was normal. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. Having been the weirdo roommate, I wonder what your guest has to say about freedom of expression in the college roommate atmosphere.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, wow. Well, I hope they got along.
I think it's - you know, and back before iPods when there was music blaring, imagine the problem with dueling stereo speakers out adjoining windows. I think that every part of learning to live with someone is learning how to express yourself in a way that doesn't impinge on the other person's rights as well.
NEARY: And one last email from Rusty in Sacramento. My son had a roommate experience that was all over map his first year at NYU. One roommate is gay and is a great person and roommate. Another one is a drug dealer, and they had to fight to have him removed.
Now that raises a question in my mind, just briefly. Is there a point at which a parent might want to intervene or might want to help a kid in a roommate situation that's particularly difficult?
Ms. DICKINSON: That would be the point.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DICKINSON: That would be the point. No question.
NEARY: If it's drugs or something illegal.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, yeah. If it's illegal, yeah.
NEARY: And how do you - how does a kid - apart from drugs, how does a kid identify when the situation is just a problem roommate and it's really a problem? They've got to get someone else involved.
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I think your RA is a great source, and you start with the RA and you talk things through. They have some perspective and then you go on up the chain.
NEARY: Okay. Thanks so much, Amy.
Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you.
NEARY: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" column for the Chicago Tribune. She joins us on a regular basis.