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Creating a Community: Communal Living Steps Out of the Comfort Zone

top view of table with food with many people reaching for the food

The first time I wore mascara was the day I left for Girl Scout camp when I was 7. 

I went to sleep-away camp alone. I was sad and nervous and intimidated by the girls who decided to go with their friends. So, my mom bought me a tube of Maybelline Great Lash mascara on our drive to the campgrounds and I walked in proud of myself. The counselors took note of those lumpy lashes, I am sure.

The bunk room consisted of four beds in a lofted wood cabin. Most of the girls came from the same troop and had grown up together; I was the lone lady. However, it only took a few hours to realize we were all nervous and only slightly prepared for our first sleep away camp. 

Regardless of nerves, the week was bright and chipper. The seven other girls and I enjoyed our “rest and relaxation” themed camp experience. That is right; out of a catalog of nearly 25 camp theme options, we chose to make face masks in the woods and hang out at the lake. It was a pretty easy transition into communal living. And it was one of the most intimidating and addicting experiences in my life to this day.

In those five days of new experiences, I realized that while I was surrounded by some great girls, I was at camp alone. There was no reason to partake in unwanted activities. If I wanted to have a good time, it was up to me to make sure it happened.

Fast forward 10 years to my next big adventure, I signed up for a trip to study marine biology in Ecuador without knowing any other participants.

Seventeen-years-old and ready for anything, I willingly jumped on the accommodations: a beach-front hostel with six teenage boys, a 22-year-old German volunteer and an eccentric, middle-aged leader. Laying in that sandy bunk, it dawned on me again how it feels to be alone while being surrounded by too many people’s snores and FaceTime calls.

I lived in many communal situations that year. In the 12 months that followed, I slept in shared spaces more times than I can recall and only had my own room in one instance.

Evenings would be spent drinking with new friends in hostels, learning to salsa dance or playing a card game late into the night. These times make group living worth it.

However, nothing prepares one for dealing with surprise situations like having a group of four middle-aged Dutch men burst into the hostel bunk room at 3 a.m., flip on the light switch and yell about not telling their wives about their night out. The light was left on while the room begged for sleep.

Once I arrived home from my year of travel, I slept in my own bed for about one week. And then, as soon as it was there, alone-time was gone. It was time to embark on the next adventure: living in a college residence hall.

The question of that year was how to share a room with only one stranger. In most of my situations, there was always a group to blend into. Here, it was just the two of us for an entire nine months.

Random roommate selection worked out during my freshman year, as it does for many.

Random roommate selection worked out during my freshman year, as it does for many. I ended up rooming with Caroline Araiza, who is now a senior studying journalism at Colorado State University.

Araiza transferred to CSU from Scripps College in California, an all-women institution. Because of her time in a residence hall during her freshman year, she was able to provide guidance while navigating a new dorm with a freshman.

But just like Girl Scout camp, almost everyone in the dorms is new to the experience: alone and nervous. Both Araiza and I were fortunate enough to have experience living on our own before the residence halls, which helped us to be better equipped for the year. Araiza and I still now get coffee once a week, two years after our time living together in such tight quarters.

Together, we implemented various techniques for an easy year:

After about a week of living in the hall, we rearranged the room to add different levels, privacy and a shared entertainment space. My bed was lofted and a hammock hung underneath, while Araiza kept her bed at waist height, giving us both separate levels in the room for privacy when it was time for bed. Then there was a communal space with kitchen appliances, teas, coffee and groceries to make it easy to get what was needed without bothering the other person.

Stay in communication. It is helpful to share locations with each other as a safety precaution, but constant communication is not necessary. A simple warning text when the room is needed for alone time does the trick for a few hours, no explanation needed.

Go through and sign roommate agreements. This outlines trash duties, noise levels, lights-out hours and anything else which seems necessary. An agreement is helpful for dorm living, moving into a new house or even just sharing a bunk bed. As civil adults, roommate agreements are a smart move to keep the time together easy and more fun than stressful.

Something to think about is the importance of cleaning. Some people grew up having their parents take care of household cleaning, or hired out the work to professional cleaners. Some people grew up with a feather duster in hand. And in the end, almost everyone ends up in a communal living situation, forced to clean alongside their counterpart. Break out the bleach, the scrubbers and the vacuum because even if a deep clean only happens once in a blue moon, at least it is happening.

Try to split the cleaning up evenly. Most residence halls have vacuums behind the front desk available for check out, so utilize them. Keeping the shared room clean helps lift the moods of both roommates. And if the dorm has a shared suite bathroom, discuss bathroom cleaning/schedules with your roommate and suite-mates to avoid mid-semester resentment.

Try leaving your door open to make new friends at the beginning of the year. And if you like the new pals enough, continue to keep the door open. There was a girl on our hall who would bring homemade boba in and host boba parties for whoever was available at the time.

Ashlyn Shellemberger, president of the Panhellenic Association and sorority member of Pi Beta Phi at CSU, was grateful for her time living in highly populated environments. A resident of an all-women floor in Summit Hall at CSU and live-in member of the Pi Beta Phi house for a year, Shellemberger said there were more pros than cons for her. Living with so many people allowed for many new friendships to bloom and for omnipresent excitement.

Her advice for people going into communal living situations is to “leave your door open in order to meet new people, and try your best to put yourself out there and interact with the people around you.”

Caleb Morse, an undeclared freshman living in Allison Hall at CSU, had similar sentiments as Shellemberger here, he credits the ease of friendship with his hall-mates to leaving their doors open in order to invite people to come in and hang out. Because of this, Morse quickly found out his hall is full of other young men who share similar values.

Morse said he is excited about his living situation. “I went in blindfolded, I didn’t really have any expectations, just was excited for a new adventure.” He is right. The residence halls are an easy place to have an adventure. 

The adventure of living alone for the first time, an adventure of adapting to a new roommate and new hall-mates, and it is definitely an adventure in figuring out life at a university. As each living situation weaves its way in and out of life, remember the simple truth: it is on each individual to have a good time. So, sign those agreements, clean the space and make life easier for both people. 

For people who chose to live with friends: think of yourself first.

After living in a residence hall freshman year, a lot of people choose to continue on with roommates. Be it in a house or apartment with new friends or a sorority or a fraternity, all options can be fun and come with their own set of challenges.

For people who chose to live with friends: think of yourself first. This is said out of total love, but in the end, you are the one who chose to live with these certain people. Here are a few questions to debate as the time to choose a new roommate arises:

  • Are they financially trustworthy?
  • Will they contribute to cleaning? Even the bathroom?
  • Do they have pets? Are there allergies to these pets?
  • Do they have a significant other? Are they likable?

While there is a lot to consider when taking housing into one’s own hands, there is also much to be excited for. After the perfect apartment or house has been chosen, the fun part begins. A hand-picked household of people who enjoy each other and might even have similar decorating styles.

Community sneaks up on us. It brings people of all races, religions, sexualities, classes, genders, ages and abilities together. Many communities are built on with a purpose: youth groups, after-school clubs, ROTC and even spelling bee competitors come together for one mission. Gradually, these participants of the communities open up to each other, allowing for new shared connections and new levels of trust.

But living together is a whole different game. The first time meeting a new roommate is a crash course on how they snore, their dreams, what they look like when they first wake up. Heck, their childhood nicknames come up after one ill-timed FaceTime call home.  And to mirror those sentiments, what a true gift it is to be allowed into someone’s life and given the chance to learn about them in such an intimate way.

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