Life with a Stranger (OutlookMag.org)

It was August 2014. The drive to campus was finally over. Housing decisions were finalized, and freshman year at Union College was about to start. Katie Struckman walked into her dorm room for the first time to meet her roommate for the next nine months: Lizzy McDonald. Though she didn’t know it at the time, the two would soon become supportive friends, confidants, and each other’s anchor for a thriving college experience.

Hitting it off

Struckman and McDonald never met before moving in together as freshmen at Union. They graduated from different high schools. Struckman was from South Dakota. McDonald was from Oregon. They only heard of each other the same day McDonald came to Union. And, at least on the outside, they didn’t have anything in common.

Shortly before classes started, both students received their roommate’s name and contact information. After gleaning some information from Facebook, both feared they wouldn’t mesh well together. McDonald’s photogenic face and photographic skills intimidated Struckman. On the other hand, Struckman loved sports and ran track and field—something McDonald knew nothing about. They each assumed they were doomed from the start.

The roommates’ first fears were soon laid to rest, however, when they realized they had a similar sense of humor. Almost immediately, Struckman noticed one of her new roommate’s wall signs, which said, “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor in the morning, the Devil says, ‘Oh shoot. She’s up.’” The sign made her laugh and realize that they weren’t so different after all.

McDonald felt the same way. “As soon as Katie started laughing about that, I felt relieved,” she remembered. “I thought, ‘I have a great roommate, and this is going to turn out well. Things will be okay.’” And they were. The two new roommates had a good laugh and they clicked.

Growing friendship

From the beginning, Struckman and McDonald clarified their personal routines. Soon, the two roommates discovered they had more in common than they originally thought. Both liked to keep the room fairly clean. Both valued each other’s relaxed personalities and considerate behavior.

Over the coming weeks and months, Struckman and McDonald’s friendship grew. Because they had two completely different majors—nursing and theology—they took different classes and spent much of the day apart. This enabled them to better support each other in other aspects of college life.

Beyond keeping a clean room, Struckman and McDonald often went to church together on Sabbath. They also motivated each other to do homework and kept each other accountable. At night, they talked about assignments due the next day. “Being able to count on someone who will do that has really helped me,” McDonald admitted. “I’m lucky.”

The matching process

According to Emily McFadyen, assistant dean of women, the process of matching roommates like McDonald and Struckman is very intentional. Assigning roommates is one of her main responsibilities and she knows that for students, it can be one of the scariest parts of coming to college. “Roommates can make or break the semester,” McFadyen said, which is why she handles each assignment personally.

Now entering her second year as a resident hall dean, McFadyen, a 2011 Union graduate, looks back on her time as a student and head resident assistant to inform her decisions in managing roommate assignments. Because of her experience as an RA, McFadyen says she is able to pick up on the different cues that make roommates compatible. Lifestyle choices like the TV shows each student watches and how they observe the Sabbath can have an extraordinary impact on roommate compatibility and, by extension, their entire college experience.

Each new student must complete a housing request form as part of their registration process. The form allows students to indicate their sleeping habits, music preferences, homework routine, and level of cleanliness. It also allows students to indicate what level of spiritual commitment they would prefer in a roommate.

Once the forms are submitted electronically, McFadyen prints them, prays for guidance, and starts sorting. Each student’s form is read individually to put it in context. Then the forms are sorted by age, bedtimes, and other preferences. In McFadyen’s experience, cleanliness and spirituality are the most important characteristics in compatible roommates.

Donene Braithwaite, dean of women, is another good resource for handling room assignments. Braithwaite managed roommate assignments for eight years as the previous assistant dean of women, and McFadyen still consults with her occasionally for feedback and support.

Creating a safe haven

McFadyen hopes with each roommate assignment that every student will come to consider her dorm room as a safe haven during her time in college. For Struckman and McDonald, this really worked. They understood each other’s personal struggles and supported each other. For example, both have a close family member with special needs, so they were able to relate to each other on a unique level which is difficult for many other people on campus.

For Struckman, having a good roommate is one of the things that made her excited to return to Union this fall. McDonald’s positive attitude and kind spirit motivate and center her. And when McDonald took a job as a Rees Hall resident assistant this year—even though this new job entitled her to a room to herself, she immediately asked to keep her roommate.

Now in their second year of living together, Struckman and McDonald still have the same camaraderie that grew out of rooming together last year. “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have as a roommate,” Struckman admitted. Both plan to stay friends for life since, they believe, they were matched for a higher purpose. “God put Katie in my life for a reason,” McDonald said, “and I’m extremely grateful that He did.”

(Originally published at http://outlookmag.org/life-with-a-stranger/)

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