Prepare for an American College Roommate

International students can navigate sharing a U.S. dorm room with communication and compromise.

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International students should be prepared to set boundaries and compromise to make sharing a dorm enjoyable.
International students should be prepared to set boundaries and compromise to make sharing a dorm enjoyable.

There is a new girl from my home university who will arrive at the University of California—Berkeley in the fall. I've been sending her tips on life out here, and when she came to me for advice about where to live around the campus, one of the first questions she asked was, "How expensive is a single room?"

At home in the United Kingdom, and in many other countries around the world, it is much more common for students living on campus to have their own bedrooms; but in the U.S., one of the most common tropes of college life is the experience of having a roommate. Roommate culture is so distinctly American that, while people see it in the movies, it simultaneously seems a totally alien practice.

[Get more advice in our Studying in the United States center.]

The reality is that if you end up living in campus housing, you will probably have a roommate - perhaps more than one. The adjustment to having to accommodate another person in your space is exacerbated by the fact that these rooms aren't all that big.

For many, the idea of suddenly being expected to share 3 by 4 meters of space – about 10 by 13 feet – with another human being is a total nightmare. So here are some hints on roommate politics and how to make the living situation work.

1. Communicate: Nothing can be more awkward than sharing a living and sleeping space with someone you don't ever speak to. With the roommate - perhaps more than with anyone else - you should make every effort to chat and get to know them.

The more you know each other and find points in common, the easier it's going to be to learn to share your space. If your roommate has an irritating habit, be it constantly forgetting to empty the bins or staging spontaneous dance parties at 4 a.m., it's far better to (politely) attempt to deal with it early on, instead of just gritting your teeth and hoping it eventually stops.

[Adjust to college as an international student.]

2. Compromise: It's highly unlikely that the two of you are going to miraculously have the same living habits, and a lot of the time you're going to have to meet halfway.

I am an early bird and an incredibly light sleeper. My roommate likes to sit up until 3 a.m. on her laptop and then sleep until the middle of the day.

We compromised, and she dims the screen light on her computer after 1 a.m., while I bought a sleeping mask and agreed to only raise the blinds after 11 a.m. Some aspects of your lifestyle, while delightful at home, won't apply when you have a roommate. You need to be willing to adapt.

3. Spend time outside: Everyone has days when they just want to sit in bed and eat pizza, but the best way to be relaxed both in your room and around your roommate is to minimize the amount of time you spend inside those four walls.

Spending too much time in such a small place can start to feel oppressive - treat your room as a place for sleep and occasional studying. If you give each other space, you are less likely to stress each other out.

[Figure out what to bring from your home country.]

4. Learn from each other: At UC—Berkeley's International House, the rule is that you can't share a room with a person from your own country. I think this rule is a great one - and whether you end up sharing with a fellow international student or an American, living together is a wonderful opportunity to learn a lot about a new and a different culture.

Throughout my year in the International House, most people have ended up getting on famously with their roommates. I have had two while staying in America, both very different, but both fabulous, and I am very glad I decided to try sharing a room out.

Of course lots of campus housing options do offer single rooms for students who don't want to share – but my advice would be to try the roommate experience. With any luck you'll come out of it with a great friend.

Emily Burt, from the United Kingdom, is currently studying at the University of California—Berkeley on an exchange program. She will graduate from the University of East Anglia in 2014 with a bachelor's in American literature and creative writing.