“Less than satisfactory would probably be an understatement,” said David*, a Weinberg third-year, about his roommate experience. At the beginning of Wildcat Welcome, David and his dad went to his room to unpack his belongings and greet his roommate. David recalled, “I don’t think he knew my dad and I speak Spanish, so he was just saying a lot of nasty obnoxious things [in Spanish] to his parents – especially his mom – and his mom started to cry.” David and his dad started making small talk in Spanish, showing that they understood the language to diffuse the awkward situation.
David still hoped to coexist peacefully with his roommate after this rough start, but found that “he kept doing things that slowly increased [his] dislike for him.” Things like playing music without headphones, plastering an entire wall with GOP posters and getting in trouble with the police while drunk (and waking David in the middle of the night to tell him about it) led David to begin avoiding his room, returning only to pick up books and sleep for a few hours a night.
Rolling the dice: the passive path
About 90 percent of first-year students go through the random roommate process each year, according to Director of Administrative Services for Residential Services Roger Becks. Instead of picking a roommate based on the paragraph-length intros in the class Facebook page, they opt for rolling the dice. Although an effort to extend kindness is a common theme among successful roommates, outcomes are quite random. They range from new best friends to months-long nightmares to crazy additions to arsenals of stories.
Becks summarized how the room assignment process works: First, first-years fill out the housing contract. Its seven lifestyle questions, combined with building preferences, feed into a protected algorithm which assigns rooms and roommates. “We don’t get a tremendous amount of roommate change requests, so I would tell you I think the process works fairly well,” Becks said. Explaining the goals of Residential Services, he said, “We just want to make sure students get into a place that they’re happy with.” He clarified that the system for assigning rooms is different for residential colleges. They choose their own residents and assign rooms independently of Residential Services.
The default choice at Northwestern is to go random: According to Becks, the majority of students do so. Their reasoning includes the superficiality and difficulty of finding a roommate on Facebook, the desire for an authentic first-year experience and not wanting to feel forced to be friends with their roommate.
Chance versus choice
Psychology professor Ben Gorvine suspects that although there isn’t much data, roommates who pick each other online are unlikely to work out better than random roommates. “The type of information you’re going to get online, social media profiles … people present themselves in a very particular way that doesn’t fully reflect their fully who they are … I think some of [what matters] is intangibles about personality that you just won’t really know until you've sat down with the person and you're sharing space with them.”
Gorvine believes that on the contrary, the random roommate process is a positive because it can expose students to new experiences. “It just opens up your conceptions of the world … It is a time in your life when you’re still very open to taking that in,” he said. “Being with someone you never would have chosen yourself might expand your network in ways that – had you been given full free choice – wouldn't happen.”
A tale of two Josephs: random roommates gone right
Weinberg third-year Joseph Kim spoke for many when he remarked that he went random because “[he] didn’t want to use one of those roommate dating sites.” Instead, whoever assigned random roommates in his residential college seemed to have fun pairing Joseph Kim with with Joe Kim, another Weinberg third-year. He got an email saying “Living in: SMQ room 312A - Joseph Kim, 312B - Joseph Kim.”
A bewildered Kim responded to the email: Was he in a double by himself? What were the odds that he and his roommate shared both a bedroom and a name? He received a reply saying something like “Actually... your roommate has the same name as you. Hope you have fun this year at Northwestern!”
Joe and Joseph, still friends over a year later, soon found that being roommates played a significant role in their adjustment process. “It was nice to have a roommate in the start, especially someone more outgoing than me,” said Joseph Kim. “[I used] Joe as like a crutch,” he laughed.
Likewise, Joe found it difficult to adjust to an environment culturally different than where he grew up. “I think having a roommate for me is a big reason why I’m still at university, 'cause for a while I was thinking maybe college is not for me.” he said. “[It was] nice to have someone living in the same space essentially going through the same thing … like a constant,” he said. Joe and Joseph agreed that they would’ve been unlikely to become friends without being roommates.
Years down the road, established friend groups color memory, making it hard to recall what the very beginning of college felt like. McCormick first-year Jakob Reinke explained that he went random because he didn’t want to feel pressured to be friends with his roommate. However, from their first interaction during the summer it was clear they had something in common because both “sent apologetic messages to one another about how [they] were very sorry the other person had to share a room with [them].”
Reinke explained that he became comfortable with his roommate situation because, as he put it, “I was looking for habits that would annoy me immediately, and I didn't find any, which was good.” Like Joseph Kim, Reinke found that his more social roommate helped his transition, forcing him to be more outgoing. Despite studying totally different subjects, Reinke and his roommate work with what they share in common, often discussing politics together.
Bad experiences “at random”
Northwestern policy dictates that no room changes will be considered during the first quarter, but Becks explained that any student can request a room change on the housing website. Regarding the first quarter freeze, he said, “Having that stability with a consistent roommate we think helps with [adjustment], but certainly there are exceptions to that.” To Gorvine, the policy discouraging early room changes is a positive because “part of growing up is figuring out your differences and sometimes being in a situation that's not all that comfortable.”
David, who decided to switch partway through his first Fall Quarter, submitted a form and received an email informing him that he had 48 hours to move into his new building. He was grateful to switch rooms early and credits his move with introducing him to his now-close friends.
Whereas David’s negative experience began after move-in, Michael’s* roommate experience stressed him out before school even started. “I had wanted a roommate because I thought that was a thing for freshmen to do,” he said. His assigned roommate never got around to telling Michael about himself, but asked Michael to be his business partner selling merchandise of a famous singer.
Michael, a School of Communication second-year, asked his roommate-to-be if they should get a mini fridge, but heard back about nothing but merchandise. Michael summed up his anxiety over the situation, saying “There was a period when I was just not checking my phone because I was like, ‘I just don't wanna deal with this.’”
Things worked out well in the end for Michael: His assigned roommate decided to switch to a different building. Having a double to himself all year allowed Michael to “turn [his] room into a second lounge essentially,” which helped him make those early social connections. Asked what advice he’d give to others, Michael cautioned against random roommates, differing in opinion from Reinke, Joe Kim and Joseph Kim. “Go about it early and try to have as much communication [as possible] before you actually decide to room with someone,” he said.
For better or for worse, most students do – and will continue to – go through Northwestern’s random roommate process, providing cherished memories and some horror stories. “Going random” is a defining part of the roommate experience, presenting new students with a vast array of outcomes as unpredictable as the first year itself.
*Names changed to protect students' privacy.