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    Rules to Room By

    Start off on the right foot with your new roommate.

    by Mike Parker

    What if your new roommate is a compulsive neat-freak and you're a bit more "creative" when it comes to organizing your space?

    What if you like to read C.S. Lewis with Fernando Ortega playing softly in the background, and he likes to play Xbox with rock music at full volume?

    What if he eats the last homemade brownie your mother sent, and doesn't even ask you?

    It's normal to be a little worried about having a roommate. But it's really not as scary as it might sound at first. By drawing up an informal contract based on a few easy principles, you can have an honest, healthy relationship with your roommate. And who knows? Maybe you'll gain a lifelong friend along the way.

    Rights

    At Seattle Pacific University, roommates draw up a contract that helps them define their roommate "rights" and talk about how they want to live together. For example, do the two roommates hope to be close friends who spend a lot of time together? Or is maintaining a comfortable living space without the expectation of friendship enough?

    In your roommate contract, the two of you should talk about what clothing and personal items you're willing to share, and what's off limits. For example, if you don't mind sharing CDs, but your clothes are off-limits, say so in your roommate contract.

    Your contract is also a great place to share what kind of conditions you need in the room. Is it really important to you that your new friends feel free to hang out in your room after dinner? Say so. Do you really need eight hours of absolute quiet each night to function the next day? Talk about it now. If you can each discuss your needs clearly, your room will be a happier place.

    For Kristen, a sophomore at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma, one of her important "rights" is the right to her own stuff. "Whether it's a shirt, a book or a Snickers bar, my roommate and I agree to ask before borrowing from each other or eating the other's food," she says. "Plus, when we do borrow something from the other, we know that we've got to be responsible for it. That means washing it if it's dirty, or replacing it if it's lost or ruined."

    Responsibilities

    As you draw up your roommate contract, take a few minutes to talk about the responsibility each of you has for taking care of the room. For example, you and your roomie might agree that each of you is responsible for keeping your space clean—or for keeping your individual messes from spilling over into shared space. "When you have a place of your own, you can fling stuff all over the place, but when you live with someone else, it's a good idea to keep your things out of each others' way," Kristen says.

    You'll also want to divide up common housekeeping responsibilities. Aaron, a recent graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, suggests speaking very specifically about these chores. "You have to agree on who does what when," he says. "Who takes out the trash? Who cleans the shower? How often?"

    By writing your expectations and responsibilities down as a contract and keeping a copy, the two of you can use your contract in the future to resolve any conflicts that might come up.

    Communication

    If you're going to get along well, you'll need to get to know one another.

    Heather, a junior at Biola University in LaMirada, California, says this was the best advice she got. Heather was a missionary kid who had just spent eight years living with her family in Poland. Her roommate, on the other hand, was from Northern California and had gone to public high school.

    "I came to California knowing nothing about American high school culture," she says. "I wasn't familiar with things like the prom, or the latest band on MTV, or the hot new movies of the last few years. My roommate, Jen, was very up on popular culture. Someone randomly paired us together, and we had totally different outlooks on what college was all about and how to have good college experience."

    At first the roommates didn't think they had much in common. But in time they were able to talk to each other about their different experiences and how they shaped their thoughts about life at college.

    "It was a definite process," Heather laughs. "It didn't happen in a few days, but I think we both feel committed to living together in a way that helps us both to be comfortable in our room."

    Even though the girls are still very different, they chose to room together during Heather's sophomore and junior years.

    "We realize that we may not be the best of friends, but we are both there for each other. And we don't have to start over each semester," she says.

    Compromise

    Learning to communicate early on really helps, especially when conflicts happen down the road. Take Heather and Jen's "little noise problem."

    "I have a low noise tolerance and she can study with the stereo blasting," Heather says. "That was a big issue. I think what allowed us to get past that was being able to compromise. Now, sometimes we have the stereo on, and sometimes we turn it off. It was a compromise that allowed both of us to be happy."

    As Heather's example shows, compromising doesn't automatically mean giving yourself a complete personality makeover. For example, if you're very social and your roommate is shy, you can compromise if you agree to invite people over when your roommate isn't home, or you can agree to do most of your socializing at the cafeteria or coffee shop.

    Conflict Resolution

    Of course, if you need help talking through roommate issues, your Resident Assistant is always there to help. "When there's a disagreement, it's better to talk it out sooner rather than later," says Melanie, a junior at Milligan College in Northeast Tennessee. She's served as an RA for her floor. Her suggestion? Don't be embarrassed to ask for your RA's help. Together, you can use your roommate contract—the agreement you made—to work through your conflicts.

    And hey—don't worry!

    Although it takes some adjustment, sharing a room during your college years can be a really positive part of college life. A lot of strong, lifelong friendships begin when people room together. And it's a great way to learn effective communication skills, discover how to compromise and expand your number of friends.