Let me paint a picture of my freshman year experience. In 2014 I headed off to start my first year at the University of Minnesota, five hours from my home in suburban Wisconsin. I have a large family, and thus had a too-large posse of move-in assistants and far too many belongings.
I arrived at a sad-looking brick building, perched at the top of a hill. It was the only dorm on the St. Paul campus of our school, a campus reserved almost exclusively for classes on agriculture, interior design, and plant sciences. As an English major, this was of no use to me. I’d been plopped in this dorm by nothing other than pure bad luck.
Miles away on the primary campus, there were restaurants everywhere, dorms gathered together in pods, humans, laughter, and short walks to every class or event.
Instead, I’d be waiting for a bus anytime I needed to go anywhere, and riding it for twenty or thirty minutes just to get from my dorm to the dorms where everyone else lived. It wasn’t a great start.
But there I was. Still excited, because despite the bleak reality of my castaway-island dorm, I was out of the house, going to school. I was going to meet people, be on my own, get my life started. The move-in day scene sent my anxiety through the roof. Hundreds of people and cars were crammed into the driveway and hallways and every spare space of this average-size building. In a blur, we talked to some overly enthusiastic people at a table, had some keys shoved at us, and for the first of several thousand times I climbed four flights of stairs to my room, at the end of the hall on the top floor.
Not a Great Start
I looked at that depressing, microscopic room like it was something much greater–a non-depressing, microscopic room, perhaps. Full of potential. I crammed it with those belongings, put a few things on the white cement-block walls, and climbed onto my desk and into the lofted bed, as I would have to all year.
Our building had two wings–north and east. I lived in the east, another bad twist of fate, because for some reason the rooms in the north wing each had a sink. Not a huge luxury, sure. But, when you think of having to put on shoes and walk down the hall to a bathroom shared by twenty other people every time you need to get a cup of water, wash your hands or face or dishes, brush your teeth, fill a microwave mac and cheese cup, and so on…that in-room sink starts to seem like the biggest perk in the world.
Then there was my roommate. She was randomly gifted to me by the university, who at this point I could only assume had an active vendetta against me for whatever reason. I also think it’s fair to say she was one of the worst people I’ve met in my life. Not a “stays up too late”-level roommate or a “leaves clothes laying around”-level roommate, but a full-blown psychopathic douchebag. I could fill an entire article chronicling the ways she tormented me, but no one wants to read that disastrous rant, so I’ll just say she was deeply awful and genuinely mean.
But then came the unexpected result of all this garbage–being trapped on the boonies campus, knowing no one, stuffed in a shoebox I shared with human garbage.
Those circumstances forced me to make some sort of change. I was so desperate to get out of my room and away from my roommate (and tired of hiding/crying in the stairwell) that I started forcing my friendship on people. And in a dorm, that’s really easy to do. Everyone wants friends. The girls next door were the sweetest people in the world, who turned their beds into floor couches, covered their room in lights and plants, and took in other quiet souls who needed camaraderie. I went to one of their weddings a couple years back, where she married a man she also met in our dorm, and who also spent nights holed up in that cozy room with all of us. It was the first sense of community I had in college.
I befriended the girls across the hall: they became my sophomore year roommates. Another girl down the hall ended up living with me for the last two years of college and we’re still in the same close friend group.
A few months before the end of the year, driven to near-madness by my roommate, I begged a girl on my floor to let me move in with her, as she’d never been given a roommate. We’re still friends. Perhaps most impressive of all, one day in a wildly out of character burst of confidence and desperation for friends I went to the north wing and knocked on the door whose number matched my own room number in the adjoining wing. I yelled at the startled guy who opened it, “hey, I’m your room twin!” He’s been one of my best friends for six years.
Living in a dorm was a nightmare. Sometimes I waited an hour for the bus to show up so I could get to a night class or event. There was nowhere to eat nearby and our dorm’s dining hall had such bad hours that by the time I finished my work shifts on the weekends at 12:30 in the afternoon it would already be closed and I’d eat cereal and mac and cheese in my room again.
Our window didn’t close or open properly. We sweated half to death and then almost froze. My roommate might have almost killed me (I suspect, but suppose I’ll never know). But half the people I know now are because I lived there.
Being trapped in that farm campus with a bunch of other unlucky suckers made us all desperate for connection. We needed each other and we found each other. It was part of the experience, even if it wasn’t the best part.
Life in 2020
My younger brother just started his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There is a stark contrast between the experience I described above and the plush living situation he’s found himself in–so stark, in fact, that when I saw photos of his place, I laughed out loud, immediately found myself deep in these dorm memories of mine, and decided to write about it.
Due to the pandemic, his school is no longer making dorms mandatory for freshmen, though it’s still an option. But actually, he says they’re harder to get into now, as they’re allowing less people in each building, so waitlists begin to pile up. He said rather than take his chances, wait it out for a dorm spot, and then be corralled into a building with a bunch of germ-swapping students (or end up not making the cut and having nowhere to live), he opted to find a roommate online and get an apartment.
And I’m not kidding when I say that it took me until junior year of college to get an apartment this nice. My little brother, even amidst a pandemic, is a college freshman with a roommate he chose and likes, a kitchen to cook food in, and two bathrooms, in a classy little apartment that my parents helped him furnish. (Let’s circle back to the whole me walking to a communal bathroom just to fill up my bowl of oatmeal image…something is off here.)
And, most mind blowing of all? He’s saving money! Yes, colleges are such incredible scam artists that somehow being forced to live in a cinder block cesspool costs substantially more than a nice apartment right down the road. Someone explain that to me. I Didn’t understand it then and still don’t now.
He did cite a few other perks. For instance, another COVID-casualty, the dorm food service will apparently be terrible this year and cost no less than usual. Meanwhile he cooks pork chops on a mini grill while his roommate puts on some music. (Is my brother already cooler than me?) He also won’t be forced to leave his home on every school holiday and break, or if another surge in the pandemic forces the school to go all online again.
He did admit that the camaraderie factor is harder to come by (you know, the one I mentioned so bittersweetly above), but that in having a roommate he’s already friends with, they’re finding ways together to go out and meet people. Without having to live in a sweltering shoebox. Somehow my brother may be turning this pandemic into a win more than anyone I’ve ever met. Major props to him.
Schools across the country are reacting to the pandemic in different ways. What have you seen colleges doing about housing and safety?
Annie Burdick is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon, but transplanted from the Midwest. She also works as a community inclusion specialist for adults with disabilities. Previously she's edited and written for magazines, websites, books, and small businesses, on an absurdly wide range of topics. She spends the rest of her time reading, eating good food, and finding new adventures in the Pacific Northwest.