Now that I’m entering the final week of summer school, I’m reflecting on what has been one of the more challenging aspects of the whole experience – staying at student residence and sharing a room.
I’ve never had a true roommate experience. The closest I came was when I lived in Central America and roomed at the home of a young couple who had two small children. For several months I shared my bedroom with a two year old who woke up cranky every morning. At age 19, I had very little experience with small children, and although I became very attached to both children during my time there, I did find it difficult to share my personal space with a small stranger.
When we marry, of course, we take on roommates in a different way, sharing our personal space in the most intimate manner. But even “love” isn’t always enough to mitigate the irritations inherent in sharing space. Many a marriage has been strained to the limit over seemingly insignificant things like clothing left on the bedroom floor, squeezing the toothpaste tube at the wrong end, or leaving the toilet seat up/down.
If you have an agreed-upon division of tasks this sometimes helps, but not always. For example, if one partner takes responsibility for washing dishes, it can be a source of irritation if the other is constantly creating a pile of dirty ones!
In a marriage and family situation, however, “love” does make it easier to overlook roommate irritation. This is not the case when your roommates are strangers, or even friends.
I’ve never liked sharing my personal space with anyone other than family. Moving out of home to live with a roommate never appealed to me. On many occasions I’ve had young people live in my home, but in those cases I was in charge and made the rules. Even so, it got difficult, and after a while I invariably would find myself getting irritated at having other people in my space. Although I’ve shared rooms with fellow students when travelling during the last few years, and managed quite compatibly, this is the first time I’ve had to do so for more than a few days, the first time I’ve actually been in an egalitarian “sharing” living relationship with a group of strangers for three weeks.
The options provided for accommodation during the summer session were limited. Hotels in Calgary are expensive, particularly since the Campus Alberta program runs at the same time as the Calgary Stampede, meaning hotel rates are almost double in some areas. I tried to find other options. I looked at subletting apartments, but could find nothing feasible. A few students offered rented accommodation in their own homes, and some of my Calgary friends suggested I could bunk with them – but I felt uncomfortable with the idea of having to be a “guest” in someone’s home for such a long period of time.
At Mount Royal College, there are two main residence options, east and west. The east wing is cheaper, but the apartments are older and I had heard rumours that they were not the best place to stay. The west wing, on the other hand, is brand new, and I was told that the townhouses were very nice (which they are). Of course, the drawback was that they are 4 bedroom units, leaving no choice but share. One student was so insistent on having her own space that she rented the other units herself, but this is a prohibitively expensive option I couldn’t even consider.
When I moved in the first day, I discovered that two of my roommates had already taken up residence, one upstairs and one downstairs. I had asked for an upstairs room, since the windows are much brighter and it’s not as claustrophobic-feeling as the basement rooms. The units have two bathrooms, so we only have to share with one other person. But the common living area, including cupboards, fridge, and television, are all shared.
There were just the three of us for the first week, then the fourth room was rented to a second year student who flew in for three days to do a single module. Fortunately, my roommates are in the same program, so all of us are focusing on studies and stay out of each other’s way for the most part. We have been getting along very well so far.
They are both pleasant people who would never deliberately do anything to infringe on my space or make things difficult, and I try to do the same. We take care to respect each other’s possessions and space. But it’s the little things that get to me. Schedules are probably the main one. Both of my roommates are early risers, who start making breakfast at 6 AM and enjoy a leisurely morning routine with television news and conversation.
I, on the other hand, don’t eat breakfast, and like to sleep in as late as possible, grab a quick coffee and run to class with minutes to spare. They are into health food, and start their day with breakfast “smoothies” of fresh fruit and grains. The problem is that these are made in a blender – and you can imagine the earsplitting grinding noise I awake to every morning! On the other side, I’m a night person, and I’m sure I’ve interrupted their sleep on occasion when I’m working late. One night I cooked myself a late supper after they had gone to bed for the night, and I felt quite guilty the next morning when my roommate reported that her sleep had been very disturbed!
Sharing a bathroom can present challenges, too, particularly if both of you need to get ready at the same time. The difference in our rising schedules has proved advantageous in this regard, so we haven’t clashed over who gets to shower first. But bathroom space is very personal. There is something disconcerting about going to wash your face and discovering someone else’s undies soaking in the sink!
Towels and toilet paper are a bit problematic too, since residence only supplies you with one towel and one roll of toilet paper a week (I’m not sure how they justify this because we do pay $50 a night – but compared to hotels I guess this is a no-frills bargain). Having stayed in residence situations previously, I was prepared and brought supplies from home, but my roommates flew here and did not have that option. I’ve had the opportunity to be helpful and do my part, taking my roommate shopping and sharing wherever I can in order to make the experience more pleasant for all of us.
Sharing fridge and cupboard space is more difficult than it sounds, and it seems to have brought out some weird territorial instincts in me. I brought my own dishes and cooking utensils from home, and put them all away into one corner of the kitchen, an area I thus defined as “my” space. I went grocery shopping the first day and tried to strategically locate all of my food in one particular area of the fridge. Of course, as the fridge began to fill up, this distinction became harder to maintain. My roommates would shop and put their purchases in any free spot they could find. Initially I found myself compulsively moving everything around so that “my” fridge stuff would stay in a single location. Rather silly, actually, since none of us touch anyone else’s food anyway.
I did the same with my utensils. The college only provides once weekly housekeeping services, so we all pick up the slack. If dirty dishes are left anywhere, whoever happens to be around washes them. But I still keep making sure “my” stuff stays in “my” cupboard, and I do “my” cooking in the same corner of the kitchen countertop. This was challenged, however, when the fourth roommate arrived. The day she arrived, I discovered to my consternation that she had set up all her foodstuffs on top of the counter in “my” area, leaving me no place to prepare my food without infringing on the space I had defined as belonging to my roommates.
Even worse, one day I couldn’t find my crystal drinking glass – then found that my newest roommate had taken it out of “my” cupboard and used it. It bothered me, yet I’m not sure exactly why – since had she asked for a glass I would have quite happily offered it to her to use.
These were minor issues, of course, and I would have addressed them if I felt they were really a problem. In all fairness, she was at a disadvantage, arriving as a new roommate into the house and finding that everyone else had already “staked out their territory,” so to speak. But it did highlight for me why I have trouble with roommate situations.
There are also some interesting positives. One evening I was surprised and pleased to discover that one of my roommates and I share a passion for Nip Tuck, a new and very unusual television drama. It was pre-empted on its regular time this week because of Calgary Stampede’s chuckwagon races, and I was very disappointed. My roommate was watching out for me, however, and when it was unexpectedly on the other night, she quickly came and called me to come watch it.
We’ve also had some enlightening conversations that have expanded my experience and insight into human nature – and once again I’ve learned that, as humans, we are often more alike than we are different.
Overall, things have gone very well, and I consider myself fortunate to have spent the time with three very nice people. At the very least, it’s been a great learning experience. I’ve gained insight into myself and learned some lessons on sharing and cooperation.
More importantly, I’ve had the opportunity to develop some close relationships with my roommates. These relationships are a valuable part of the whole experience, something I’ve gained from summer graduate school that will serve me well in the future.
I will, however, be very glad to get back home where my space is once again my own!
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology.