When University of Maryland freshman Mike Manolatos pulled up to his dorm last Thursday, he was nervous. It was his first day at college and he had yet to meet his roommate.
"What kind of person would he be?" asks the 18-year-old from Rockville. "What kind of interests would he have? Would he be extroverted or introverted?"
Christopher Brown, 17, had already arrived from Glen Arm, Md. As he unpacked in their tight quarters, the worst possibilities bombarded his imagination. "I was afraid about studying," says Brown, who, like his roommate, is exchanging life with one sister for life with hundreds of undergraduates. "Get a phys ed major for a roommate and it gets hard to study."
In two hours, they'd declared themselves compatible: "We like the same music -- that's the first thing," says Brown. Manolatos agreed, "No problems so far. Not that there won't be any . . ."
Odds are, say experts, that most of the 2.25 million students across the country entering their first year of college this fall will run into adjustment snags. Most are beginners tossed into the deep end of social experience. Some sink, some swim.
But increasingly, college administrators and psychologists who blame intensified pressures of dorm life for part of campus drop-out rates, vandalism, alcoholism and drug abuse are attempting to equip students with "dorm life jackets" -- personal skills to keep freshmen afloat.
"Freshmen step from one world into the next," says Barbara Rexwinkle, associate director for residence life at the University of Delaware, Newark. "They are away from home for the first time. Everything that they have in terms of family, their current friends, life style, setting -- all of those things -- change at once."
Most colleges and universities provide first-year students with minimal preemptive guidance, usually the Roommate Starter Kit -- a how-to pamphlet widely distributed since 1981 and typically enclosed with orientation materials or left on dorm-room desk tops. While the six-page icebreaker attempts to start honest communication between new roommates about personal habits, prejudices, peeves and so on, some experts say more is needed.
Rexwinkle says that, as at the University of Delaware, a growing number of institutions provide informal group sessions aimed at sidetracking roommate crises. The top program, she says, is the University of Maryland's.
"Just holding on the lid isn't good enough," says Rexwinkle, who predicts students are going to seek out institutions where they can learn life skills. "People are very concerned about alcohol and drug abuse on campus, but they'd rather look at the outcomes -- the acting out of the loneliness and frustrations -- than the big picture," she says. "What's good about the Maryland program is that it looks at the big picture."
As freshmen carried boxes of belongings to newly assigned rooms, Michael Waldo walked through the University of Maryland's College Park dorms listening to perennial pieces of conversation. At 31, the assistant professor in the counseling and personnel services department looks too young to be the architect of what is probably the nation's most comprehensive college roommate relations program.
"So much energy and time is put into problems after they've occurred," says Waldo, who cites national surveys indicating one-third of college students show signs of emotional disturbance. "Not much can be done then because relationships sour. You can't always put 'em back together. My goal is to stop problems before they occur, to get students over that transitional hump."
The hump, says Waldo, is a convergence of four powerful "passages" in the life of any 17- or 18-year-old:
*Personality change: Trying to establish an identity and develop a capacity for intimacy. If it goes poorly, there is a sense of confusion and students can become withdrawn.
*Role change: From being a high school student dependent on family to being more independent and responsible for oneself. If that change is derailed, the student can become highly irresponsible.
*Change in relationships: From a family they've known all their lives and friends they've known most of their lives to roommates they've never met. If close and trusting relationships aren't developed, students can become suspicious and isolated.
*Change in community: From a familiar home town where they knew the storekeepers and neighbors to a residence hall with hundreds of new faces. It's a tidal community, says Waldo -- people wash in one year and wash out the next. Students can find involvement and emotional support, or they can feel the dorm is a cold, alienated and isolated place.
"All of these are changing at once," says Waldo. "It adds up to what psychologists consider a real crisis time. The Chinese word for 'crisis' can translate as 'dangerous opportunity.' That's a good definition of what the students go through. It's a critical and vulnerable time -- and a time when we can influence them positively."
Roommate conflicts manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Skirmishes between a roommate who wants to study and another who wants to party, or tiffs between female roomates who borrow each other's clothes without permission, are "lightweight," he says. "It gets heavy duty when there's sexual identity harassment or racial tension, which is still rampant. Religious persecution is not uncommon."
Waldo's biggest challenge often is to convince students that better communication -- not retaliation or withdrawal -- is the answer to such problems. That's the message of his Relationship Skills Workshop.
Since 1981, Waldo has introduced about 400 students a year to their roommates and hallmates through his voluntary workshop. Although he admits it doesn't go over well with macho students, registration for the six-week course (seven hours of theory on good communications and eight hours of practicing with roommates) overreaches the number of teaching assistants he can train to help out. This year Waldo expects 500 to 1,000 first-year students to sign up -- partly because the university grants one college credit to workshop participants.
"There is no regular coursework that has anything to do with relating to other people or communications skills," says Waldo, "and yet that is the most important thing they can learn while they're here."
Central to the program, says Waldo, are four simple communication skills:
Demonstrate through nonverbal communication that you are paying attention.
Express yourself in a personal way using "I" statements and not generalities. Don't say, "This university is really incompetent," but "I'm feeling really frustrated with the university."
Demonstrate understanding when you're listening. Saying things like "You're feeling really frustrated about that, aren't you?" shows you're both on the same page.
Give feedback and don't be afraid to confront. By confronting each other, a high-quality relationship is more likely. Don't say, "You're really a slob." Rather, "Your stuff is lying around and I'm having people come over and I'd appreciate it if you help me straighten up." The first is an attack on character; the second is more easily heard.
"It's hard to change a person's identity, or the community they come from," says Waldo. "But it is possible to help people learn communication skills. Ability to communicate effectively is changeable."
Waldo savors his workshop's victories: last year, for instance, floormates of a black woman who was suffering racial harassment kept all-night vigils to help her; another time, a young woman, upset by her brother's suicide, found the understanding she needed from her college friends.
He is zealous to demonstrate the workshop's impact with survey results: Students who develop high-quality relationships tend to have fewer problems with depression and alcohol abuse; and they tend to have higher grade-point averages.
"Respect between roommates, being honest with each other and making an effort to understand each other," says Waldo, are keys to a quality relationship. "My goal is that they carry these skills on into their future relationships with spouses, parents and children. I tell them their children's children's best friends may become better communicators because of it."