The Real Housemates of campus: True stories of cohabitation

(Illustration by CelIa KrampIen)

(Illustration by CelIa KrampIen)

(This article originally appeared in the 2015 Globe and Mail Canadian University Report on Oct. 22, 2015)

It took Mallory Hewlko and her roommate more than two weeks to realize that neither of them knew the two British guys staying in their basement. Somehow, they had acquired new roomies without even knowing it.

In her time at University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, Ms. Hewlko, a geography student, had anywhere from three to 10 roommates depending on the time of year. So transient was the nature of the house that when she and her roommate came home to their new house guests, they both assumed the other had invited them and thought nothing of it.

“It was a five-bedroom house, one of those great hang-out houses,” she remembers. “We had a constant revolving door of roommates in and out.”

Luckily, the new guys actually made pretty good tea, according to Ms. Hewlko, and they became good friends. But a lack of boundaries or expectations can spell disaster for students in shared housing, whether in dorms or off campus.

Tess Marusyk lived on campus at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., for three years. In her second year as a bachelor of science student, she became a resident adviser, making $3,500 a semester to supervise a residence. By third year, Ms. Marusyk says it started to feel like more work than it was worth.

She tackled one particularly delicate problem when three students struggled to adhere to the floor’s cultural norm of wearing clothing in the shared, co-ed bathroom. “We asked them so many times to just, please, wear towels,” she says. After multiple meetings and warnings, Ms. Marusyk says the trio still didn’t seem to understand how uncomfortable they were making other students.

“It kind of came to a head when one time they were washing their feet in the sink, just fully naked and on display.”

While such extreme tales may frighten some away from cohabitation, not all encounters will be this jaw-dropping.

Most universities have students fill out personality assessments in an attempt to match compatible roommates. Still, night owls may find themselves bunking with early birds and clean freaks with oblivious slobs, imbalances that are compounded by the closet-sized space they share.

Janice Johnson, managing director of residence life at McGill University in Montreal, says it’s part of the experience. “One of the most important skills you will ever master in your life is conflict resolution and you might as well get that done right away,” she says.

For extremely apprehensive cohabitants, requesting a specific roommate, like your best friend from high school, is a common option during the residence application phase, but Ms. Johnson recommends against it. “Quite frankly, there’s nothing quite like living with your best friend to ruin a relationship,” she cautions.

More campus survival skills

1. Don’t try to game the system. So you’ve figured out how to get by doing the bare minimum. That’s nice, but how does that set you up for future success?

2. Stay on top of reading and assignments. “As soon as you fall behind, going to class isn’t really effective any more,” says Michelle Morello, a third-year bachelor of science student at the University of Victoria.

3. Treat school like the start of your career, and your professors as you would your boss. That means honouring deadlines, showing up on time and attending all classes.

4. Ask for help. You will have access to counselling, academic advisers, and professors will have office hours where you can see them outside of class. “The better you get to know professors, the more you’ll understand what they are looking for on exams and in your work,” says Tess Marusyk, a fourth-year bachelor of science student at Simon Fraser University.

5. Take full advantage of resources. Libraries, academic journals, study groups, gyms, pools and climbing walls. The resources you have access to at university are nearly endless.

6. Don’t let yourself get buried in your phone, tablet and computer all the time. Look up, meet new people and leave your dorm. “We have this weird phenomenon of an entire floor being in their own rooms and they’re all talking to each other and they’re all playing the same game … physically they’re 10 feet away from each other, but they’re not face to face,” explains Janice Johnson, managing director of residence life at McGill University.

7. You don’t need to be infected with a deadly virus to get an extension. Recalling an exam she failed while sick with the flu in her first semester at SFU, Ms. Marusyk says she wishes someone would have told her all she needed was a doctor’s note to postpone her test. “I thought you had to be having one of your legs amputated or something to get a doctor’s note,” she says regretfully.

8. Be honest with yourself about your sleep habits and try to plan your schedule accordingly, says Brian Murray, an associate professor of neurology and sleep medicine at the University of Toronto. “When people get sleep deprived, it affects their overall health. People gain weight, which is probably part of the ‘freshman 15’ and it has a huge impact on mood,” he warns.

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