When I went to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, USA for my Bachelor’s Degree, I was mandated by the school to live on-campus with a roommate (two or three for some unfortunate cases) at least for the first year. 95 per cent of the all-women student body lived in one of the eighteen residence halls, each unique in design and character. I was excited — sharing living space with peers after the clutches of South Asian parenthood is bound to be exhilarating. Living in these dorms in fact shaped the twilight of my adulthood.
To provide some context, Mount Holyoke is an intensive liberal arts undergraduate institution for women, set in a tiny suburban town in a beautiful New England valley. Its gender policy, sense of fraternity and proud openness as part of its college identity translated to its residential policy of “inclusion and compassion”. Students from all class years, ethnicities, sexual orientation and political values shared space under the same roof. The result is a melting pot of individualities; people coexisted and influenced each other meaningfully.
The dorm experience provided a junction between go-solo adulthood and being in a somewhat sheltered environment. I could grow and learn from mundane activities such as doing laundry, ensuring hygiene in the room (something a household with maids didn’t teach), and getting out of my study-hole for food.
I formed my first friendships in my dorm, and found family outside family.
An unsuitable roommate could taint the initial experience, if not completely ruin it. I had a friend whose roommate would listen to foreign radio constantly and practically never leave the room, affording my friend no private space, which eventually led to an implosion between them. My first roommate was a reclusive introvert who brooded when I had visitors which made it difficult for me to enjoy new friendships. There are Community Advisors who help reach a compromise but an unfitting roommate match feels an awful lot like living with a divorced spouse. Everything is a source of annoyance to both — her footsteps affect your sleep, your table lamp upsets hers, etc. Your refuge of retreat becomes a vortex of vexation.
Yet it forces you to grow as you improve your communication skills, acquire skills of tolerance and compromise and learn when to shut up. And maybe even allow some of her good habits to grow on you.
This was the story of a roommate you did not choose, but the reality of rooming with your best college buddy is also not straightforward and simple. Living with someone you know well weans out in either of two ways in my experience: you either pigeon-hole yourself in your own comfort zone, or proximity to each other’s quirks and the lack of personal space becomes wearisome for both.
She eats the snacks you bought with your minimum wage earnings, you don’t tidy up the shelf and it silently bothers her. And it’s awkward to point these out to each other.
Yet it can allow some of the best experience of small pleasures — laughing off study breaks, hosting tea parties, watching yet another episode of Friends at 2 a.m. post-homework. These are things that I missed when I finally had the privilege of a single room, personal space and all that quiet time. The perils of living in a communal bubble were few, and the herd mentality of a dorm afforded further security. What was different about being abroad and living alone was the cultural context. Home is the equivalent of private space and to have independence thrust upon you in a foreign land can be disconcerting especially if you are used to growing up sheltered.
How? Everything you are taught to disdain and avoid is in your face. Temptations are plenty, disciplining is non-existent. Your new home, i.e. where you seek refuge from new, even dark influences is the factory for such intrusions. There is nowhere to hide, because your new home is where it’s all happening. Many who plunge into this new, profound sense of freedom find themselves opening up to the taboos of indulgence which they might have otherwise shunned.
You know what’s great about this though? The open-mindedness extends to empathy for different human conditions — black, white, queer, lesbian, Republican, Democrat. You are all under the same roof and in your coexistence you not only learn tolerance, you go beyond that. What we should have been taught by custom is taught through dorm parties and gatherings — the irony!
The writer’s name from the article ‘Dorm-ing Abroad’ was inadvertently dropped from Star Lifestyle’s 17-9-13’s issue. We regret the error and apologise for any inconvenience cause. It was written by Dibarah Mahboob, Class of 2014, Sigma Iota Rho Honors Society, Mount Holyoke College.