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Roommate Roulette

Your freshman roommate is (a) not someone you choose; (b) quite possibly your polar opposite; and (c) hard to get rid of. And yet, sometimes it works out perfectly.

Davy Liu

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By Ann Marsh

Think back to Day One, freshman year, whether it was five or 50 years ago. It surely ranks among life’s most vulnerable moments. The only other time you found yourself suddenly living with roommates not of your choosing may well have been at birth.

So there you are, 18 or thereabouts and semiadult. Possibly leaving home for the first time ever. And now you’re about to let a group of strangers decide who will sleep a few feet away from you in a cramped and featureless bedroom.

For a year!

Optimism aside, submitting to the roommate-pairing process is a perilous undertaking. Who you live with that year will affect the course of your social life. The person could become your best friend and godparent to your first child. But, then again, it could be someone who leaves smelly clothes wadded up near your front door.

Beverly Simmons and Barbara Rust Berring got lucky. The two shared a room in Branner during the early days of coed housing, in 1967. It was an intoxicating and scary time with the start of the flower-power movement and fellow students drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. Rust Berring and Simmons say they were very different people—Simmons pursued math and music while Rust Berring studied languages—but nonetheless hit it off.

Nearly 40 years later, they still claim each other as best friends, and their lives have followed similar paths. “We got married within a year of each other. We both married academics. We both had our children at the same time,” Simmons says.

The secret of their success as a pair? “We just managed to be really honest with each other and open,” says Simmons, ’71, MA ’73, DMA ’76.

“Like sisters might be,” adds Rust Berring, ’71. “Bev’s probably the closest thing I have to a sister.”

This is the dream of most incoming frosh, according to Jane Camarillo, director of the Office of Residential Education at Stanford. While most students achieve some measure of this goal, she says, a good percentage do not.

If you had to break down roommate pairings, they might fall into three categories: the best friends, the peaceful coexisters and the soon-to-be-divorced. In each case, from Stanford’s perspective, opportunity awaits.

“Students are 18. They haven’t had a lot of experience in trying to work things out. This is part of the education about how to develop a relationship,” Camarillo says.

This notion of cohabitation as curriculum is losing ground on college campuses. Many schools are building—and touting—dormitories that feature single rooms. At Boston University, for example, a new high-rise will house more than 800 students, each in his or her own bedroom.

The reason: many students today, especially those who are well off, have never shared a room before. They (and their parents) sometimes show alarm at the prospect. In a recent New York Times article, an architect who works with several schools said he expected to build student housing with shared rooms, the kind he occupied with his own college roommate. But some parents vehemently opposed the idea. One side effect of increased affluence, the architect observed, is that “we lose the ability to share.”

This is an ideal that Stanford is unwilling to abandon.

Perhaps one of the most defining attributes of the Stanford experience is that freshmen often live with their diametric opposites, at least on the surface. Unlike some schools that let students pick each other via web questionnaires à la online dating, Stanford does not let entering freshmen request roommates. Instead, Residential Education maintains (gleefully?) a policy of pairing people who have different interests or backgrounds: the jock with the math genius, the poet with the engineer, the rural homeschooled kid with the wealthy Manhattanite.

“It’s hard to learn anything if you move in with your twin brother,” Camarillo explains.

For similar reasons, Stanford does not tell freshmen who their roommates are before they arrive on campus. Camarillo mentions a case at another university in which a student showed up to find that his new roommate’s mother had chosen matching bedspreads for him and her son. “We would like the students to come in without any assumptions about their roommates,” she says.

At the same time, the University works to ensure some compatibility. Housing Assignment Services pairs roommates based on Res Ed’s guidelines and on student responses to questionnaires about their habits, i.e., when and how they listen to music, study, sleep and choose to socialize. So, when possible, the messy housekeepers find themselves cohabiting, as do the early risers, as do those students who blast Eminem at full volume. As with any imprecise science, the results are unpredictable.

The same was true even before the University began hand-pairing students by compatible behavior. Take Dave Velasquez, for instance. The young Latino from El Paso, Texas, arrived at Stanford in 1967, when the student population was still nearly all white. “It was a scary experience,” recalls Velasquez, ’71, MBA ’73. The culture shock was bad enough that he called his mother and announced his intention to come home. “If I had done that, it would have been the worst mistake of my life,” he says.

His roommate, John Ford (now Stanford’s vice president for development), played a critical role, whether knowingly or not, in quelling the urge to bolt. From Velasquez’s perspective, Ford, ’71, seemed to blend right in at Stanford in a way Velasquez couldn’t. He seemed relaxed and laid back. He welcomed Velasquez into his life, inviting him to his parents’ home down south in Sherman Oaks, Calif., for the holidays.

“If I hadn’t lived with someone who made me feel of value, it might have been a lot different,” Velasquez says. The experience was so powerful that it influenced his career direction. Velasquez now works as the director of admissions and college counseling at the Brentwood School in Southern California, helping high school juniors and seniors navigate their own way into college. He and Ford still catch up with one another at reunion gatherings.

Then there’s Wesley Yeo. The recent grad went through 13 roommates in his four years at Stanford. That’s right, 13.

It’s a fitting number, since Yeo, ’02, often felt he had to be the unluckiest roommate in Stanford history. “By the time number seven came around, I just called him Number Seven,” he says.

Yeo’s troubles started when he discovered that his freshman roommate smelled funny. Was he not washing his clothes enough? Was he not washing himself? Yeo says he got his residence dean (a member of Camarillo’s staff) to talk to the young man, to no avail. When Yeo tried to open the window, his roommate reported that a medical condition made fresh air bad for his health. Eventually, Yeo ended up sleeping on the floor in the room of two friends for a month and a half. Finally, Res Ed relented and Yeo was moved.

“The body odor story is a common one,” Camarillo says. Sometimes, she explains, “the cultural expectations for hygiene are just different.”

Moving a student is pretty rare. Camarillo and her staff express sympathy for students who find they don’t much like their roommates, but encourage them to take a measured view and reduce their expectations. “Your roommate doesn’t have to be your best friend,” Camarillo insists. She and the residence deans tell students there’s a bright side to crummy roommate experiences. Namely, they can force students to get out and meet other people who then become their close friends. And Stanford’s clusters of relatively small residences facilitate that.

The University will move students, however, if it finds serious violations of trust between roommates, as in cases where one is repeatedly denied access to the room while the other shacks up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. “It is not our goal to make people be miserable for the rest of the year,” Camarillo says.

She reports that far more upperclass students than freshmen complain of irreconcilable roommate differences. That sounds counterintuitive, given that most upperclassmen get to choose their roommates whereas freshmen do not. But friendship does not always equal roommate compatibility, and some best-friend pairs may go into their new living arrangement with emotionally charged expectations.

A 1995 tragedy at Harvard illustrates just how high the stakes can be. Sinedu Tadesse, a junior from Ethiopia, stabbed to death her roommate, Trang Ho, in their one-room double, then hanged herself. Tadesse’s diaries revealed a fragile and emotionally isolated young woman who, separated from every familiar support structure, lashed out at Ho after their friendship had cooled.

Harvard came to its peer institutions with questions. “They were asking, What do you do if a student is excelling, but you know they are sad or isolated or weird?” recalls Camarillo. Stanford’s answer: step in. All resident assistants, resident fellows and residence deans are taught to look for warning signs such as depression, withdrawal or intractable incompatibility between roommates.

Most juniors’ or seniors’ situations are much less extreme. Some simply get frustrated because they end up on a sort of roommate merry-go-round—roommates stop out or go overseas, to be replaced by “randoms.” That’s what happened to Yeo.

After he crashed in the room of his two friends, the University paired him with one student just back from stopping out, then another. Total for freshman year: five roommates. Sophomore year: lived with his best friend, who stopped out, resulting in a succession of two random roommates. Junior year: three roommates, two of whom Yeo chose. Senior year: separated from his friends in the housing draw; three more randoms.

Number Seven, who shall remain nameless, occupies a fond place in this history. He distinguished himself one evening by walking in the door and passing out.

“I was like, ‘He did not just puke on the floor, did he?’” Yeo recalls. “I’d heard of people choking on their puke and dying. I decided that would be bad because then I’d have to get another roommate.”

And so, Yeo came to Number Seven’s rescue.

“I remember waking up and Wes was on the floor with paper towels,” recalls Number Seven, ’01, MA ’02. “I suppose it was a bonding experience.”

Yeo started calling his roommate by his first name. But even that Hallmark moment didn’t end his roommate travails, because Number Seven and Yeo drew with different friends the next year.

For a brief, hallucinatory moment at the outset of senior year, Yeo imagined he’d lucked out and scored a single room in Castaño House. “If anyone deserves a single, it’s you, Wes,” his friends told him. Yeo walked up to the third floor and opened the door onto every upperclass nightmare: yet another one-room double.

Number 13, Yoni Mervis, did not make a good first impression. “If there was anyone who hated Castaño House more than I did, it was Yoni,” Yeo says. But Mervis, ’04, turned out to be “the best friend you could ever ask for.” Yeo may have gone through 13 roommates, but he ended on a high note with just enough time to graduate.

Despite himself, Yeo allows that Camarillo is right—there’s a lot to learn by living with strangers. “At the time, I thought housing really hated me,” he says. “But out of all of [the roommates], there are only three I wasn’t friends with. I actually consider myself pretty lucky.”

Bruce Grant may hold a different sort of record, for longest friendship between roommates. Grant, now 91 and a former president of the Napa Valley Stanford Alumni Club, remained close to his freshman roommate, Morris “Oppy” Oppenheim, for more than 70 years until Oppenheim died two years ago.

Grant, ’33, came to Stanford from Yreka, a small city at the very top of California. He had never met anyone Jewish before he moved in with Oppenheim, ’33, and the third man in their room, both of whom hailed from cosmopolitan San Francisco. Living away from home and with roommates “got me into a whole new world,” Grant says.

“I just plain liked the fact that [Oppenheim] was easy to get along with. That was true all through school and for the years that followed,” he says.

Carolee Kolve didn’t have a freshman roommate in the conventional sense. Most of the women on her hall in Roble—then an all-women’s dorm—lived in singles. Although (or perhaps because) they didn’t have to negotiate who got which side of the room, the hallmates bonded powerfully. “It was the end of one era and the beginning of another,” Kolve recalls of Stanford circa 1963.

Kolve, ’67, and her neighbors had studied ballroom dancing in high school, only to discover they needed to learn something about rock and roll by college. “None of us felt like we were very good dancers,” she says. “We would play music and all try to learn to dance in the hallway.”

Nancy Coffey, who lived right across the hall, became Kolve’s best friend. She remains so to this day, in part because, as Kolve puts it, “Nancy’s kind of a kooky person.”

One piece of evidence: freshman year, Coffey, ’67, MS ’77, got an idea from some friends at the all-male Soto House. Before dinner at Roble one night, Coffey quietly told all the women to gird themselves for a food fight in the dormitory’s elegant wood-paneled dining hall.

At the appointed time, Coffey stood up, yelled, “Food fight!” and hurled her plate of food in the general direction of the dorm mother, a woman remembered equally for her rectitude and for her faux-leopard-skin bathrobe.

“The entire room sat there,” Kolve recalls. “No one did it.”

“They just about hauled me off on the spot,” Coffey says.

Kolve, who served on the dorm’s judicial council, did her best to look scandalized while sentencing Coffey to compulsory gardening as punishment.

Kolve and Coffey remain close with many of the other women from their hallway at Roble. They have also stayed in touch with many of the men from Soto House and their wives. When their children were small, the two women began to bring the groups together for shared family vacations at Stanford Sierra Camp.

“What we discovered was that we all liked the people we had become,” Kolve says. “The longer we were out of Stanford, the more we wanted to see each other.”

To wit: several hooked up in Palm Springs to celebrate their 50th birthdays and in Idaho for their 55th. For the past three years, they’ve been planning a trip to Tuscany. In May, 10 couples will descend upon a villa near San Gimignano for an exuberant, expatriate-style Big Chill gathering that will stretch over three weeks.

When Coffey tots up what she values most in her life, she finds herself coming back to freshman year and thinking of Kolve and another woman from her hall in Roble. “For these two friends alone,” she says, “my decision to go to Stanford remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

Perhaps Wesley Yeo wouldn’t go quite that far. It was fun seeing Number Seven when he visited Yeo recently in Washington, D.C. But these days, Yeo chooses to live, contentedly, by himself.

CORRECTION: This story was modified from the print version of the magazine.

Ann Marsh, ’88, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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