The college roommate pairing isn’t so random anymore

September 3

College memories. (Sarah Vander Schaaff)

When I arrived at Northwestern in the fall of 1992, I brought with me what I thought were some essentials from my home in Austin: mix tapes, cowboy boots, a floor length pink cashmere dress, and as many books on acting as I could fit in a box and still tape shut. My roommate, whom I hadn’t met before, showed up with a word processor. This kid was no-nonsense. She was from New Jersey.

After a few days together she said, “Your shoes are all so pointy.” I hadn’t noticed before, but yes, I suppose they were.

Agnes and I were different. She moved to the United States from China when she was in third grade, and had a laser-like precision and confidence, even if she was not quite sure of her major.

I was the quintessential introverted soul trapped in the yearnings of a theatre major. A bit of Sturm und Drang, to which Agnes once said, “Your emotions affect the other person in the room, you know?”

Blunt wisdom. A gift, it turned out, and one of the reasons we remained friends long after freshman year. When we were both living in New York City — she was working in finance and I was getting my feet wet in journalism after a mid-20s career shift — Agnes was on a mission to set people up on dates. She alluded to a belief that it would get her into heaven, but I think it was also part of her direct nature: you guys would be good together; stop wasting time.

She was better at closing a deal at work than she was at playing cupid, however, and by the time I surfaced on her Rolodex of available friends, there was some sense that she was now digging deep.

Nonetheless, a date was arranged. I picked out the movie Endurance, about the plight of Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic, and the guy from her office wasn’t deterred.

He’s still not, and this fall will be our 12th wedding anniversary.

I have thought many times about the fact that a residential life coordinator assigned me to a room with Agnes. That one pairing eventually led to my marriage and the creation of two little girls whose DNA is a miraculous combination that may never have happened. Do I call that luck? Or fate? Or is it just part of the random nature of life?

That randomness of roommate selection is losing currency these days, as you might have guessed, with the digital natives heading to college. My own alma mater, for example, now uses an automated system called Residential Management Services. Students select a room online and designate a roommate using RoomSync, software Northwestern has offered freshman for the last two years.

Unlike Facebook, access to RoomSync is limited to students at the university and the service helps identify potential matches based on answers to some simple questions. If both students agree that they “sync,” they can exchange passcodes to be used during the room selection process.

Mark D’Arienzo, the senior associate director for Residential Services at Northwestern, told me that about 45 percent of the 2025 incoming students used RoomSync this year. Another 5 percent found a match another way, either through coaches, meet-ups in hometowns, or on Facebook. The process of room selection now takes five days.

“I can even shorten it,” D’Arienzo said, “but I don’t want to rush them.” He limits the lottery-assigned selection times to business hours so if anyone runs into a glitch, they can call a human for help.

I asked if this self-selection process was another way Millennials are getting everything tailored to their preferences and missing out on some of the early rough patches that build strength. My older brother, for example, whose roommate barfed regularly on his comforter, learned that his little sister was not, in fact, the worst person with whom to share space.

D’Arienzo countered that the new system puts responsibility on students and adds transparency. If something does go wrong, students are more likely to call his office saying, “I messed up, can you help me?” than they are to pass the blame. It has also ended the urban myth that the residential services department was secretly holding back rooms.

D’Arienzo believes the system is empowering for students who have been raised by helicopter parents. “Our parents don’t hover,” he told me, “there is an aircraft carrier in Lake Michigan.”

That’s true most places, he said, and this change in housing is a national trend.

Still, I reminisced about the randomness of my own freshman year roommate assignment. How fortuitous that the girl with pointy shoes from Austin and the savvy one from New Jersey were placed together back in 1992.

D’Arienzo was working in res life back in ’92, he told me. It took three weeks to place 1,865 freshmen.

“Well,” I told him as our phone call came to an end, “I’ve always wanted to thank the residential life person who placed me with Agnes Tang.”

“Agnes Tang?” he said.

“Do you remember her?”

That was not the type of name someone would forget, he said.

“That residential life person is responsible for my marriage.”

“Is your marriage a good one?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

And then he confessed that he was the guy to thank.

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff blogs at The Educated Mom and is an editor at Mindprint Learning.

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