In picking roommates, students get pickier Many no longer see the luck of the draw as satisfactory. Among the solutions: Facebook. Students get pickier about roommate picks

Posted: September 07, 2008

Remember that uncomfortable moment when you met your freshman roommate - a virtual stranger who now would sleep six feet away from you every night? Would it be some psycho partier or finicky fellow, super slob or chronic borrower?

An increasingly picky lot of freshmen is taking matters into its own hands to ensure that the roommate experience is not a remake of Single White Female, the movie in which a demented Jennifer Jason Leigh torments an unsuspecting Bridget Fonda.

Colleges throughout the region report that large and growing segments of the freshman class are picking their own roommates.

Facebook has become the new venue for making selections, but students also are pairing up with friends from high school or their hometowns, or after meeting at an orientation session.

"It's less stressful, knowing their personality," said Temple University freshman Brittney Burchett, 18, an engineering major from Bethlehem, Pa., whose roommate has been a friend since third grade.

Burchett's father, Glenn, was all for it.

"We wanted someone who would study and wouldn't be in gothic," said Glenn Burchett, who, like an increasing number of parents, helped steer the selection.

Colleges throughout the area employ wide-ranging policies on matching freshmen, from using personality traits to selecting roommates randomly as a lesson in how to get along.

The national Association of College and University Housing Officers says students are more picky about roommates today and "seem to be less motivated to get to know others."

At Drexel University, officials say more incoming students have had their own bedrooms at home compared with 10 years ago, making room-sharing trickier.

"When there's a roommate, there's a learning curve," said Rita LaRue Gollotti, senior associate vice president of Drexel Business Services.

At Widener University, nearly a third of freshmen picked a roommate. "More and more students, once they know it's an option, want to," said Catherine Bermudez, assistant dean for residence life.

Others cite growing numbers. At Villanova, 12.5 percent of the 1,600 freshmen chose roommates, compared with 7 percent five years ago.

Among them were Mary Kathleen O'Connor, 18, an arts major from Frackville, Pa., and Lauren Moyer, 18, a business major from Tamaqua, Pa., who met at a Villanova retreat, found they lived near each other, and had like interests: "Shopping," for one, they said.

At the University of Pennsylvania, freshmen selecting roommates rose from 419 in 2005, when Penn began tracking the number, to 494 this year - about 20 percent of the freshmen.

Muhlenberg College in Allentown routinely hears from up to three dozen pairs of students who request roommates. A decade ago, the practice was rare.

Aaron Bova, associate director of residential services, cited online connections.

"In the past two years, there have been numerous Facebook groups created by incoming students before they are even on the Muhlenberg network," he said. "These groups have as many as 400-plus members, which is significant when you are looking at a total class size of 598."

Facebook user Brianna Hall signed on to the group "Eastern University Class of 2012" to look for a roommate.

Up popped a message from Sara Semborski of Bloomsburg, Pa. The two hit it off after exchanging messages and meeting, and they decided to room together.

"We like the same music, and she has really good Christian values, which is something I have myself," Hall, 18, of Downingtown, said at the St. Davids campus.

Even students who don't choose a roommate on Facebook are rushing to check out their matches once the college notifies them.

Shannon Hagerty, a Villanova freshman, was relieved to see her match had "friended" her on Facebook.

"I was like, 'Oh, good. It's not someone crazy,' " she said.

Not everyone is relieved by their roommate's Facebook page. Some colleges get calls from students and parents seeking changes before school starts. They don't want someone with differing political beliefs or sexual orientation, or a heavy alcohol user or gun toter.

Widener began to get calls within seven minutes of posting roommate assignments, Bermudez said. Five were negative, citing information on Facebook, she said.

La Salle University received a few calls from parents who objected to their child's roommate based on Facebook posts, said Jeff Hershberger, director of administrative services. The university declined to make changes.

"Students and parents of students make snap judgments based on what they see on Facebook," Hershberger said. "Our experience tells us that students don't always represent themselves in a true light online."

Some universities won't consider roommate requests. Princeton University's policy is aimed at ensuring that "our students will be exposed to people of different backgrounds and belief systems," spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said. Such an exercise will prepare them "for the relationship-building and problem-solving skills they'll need when they enter the world after college."

Some students prefer the luck of the draw.

"I wanted to get to know somebody different," said Temple freshman Ann Kramer, 18, a psychology major from Mechanicsburg, Pa.

The role of parents is sometimes very hands-on.

Villanova junior Colin Liberatore, 20, a finance major from Drexel Hill, said his mother had been friends with the mother of his freshman roommate, Mike Gordon, 20, also a finance major from Drexel Hill. The mothers suggested they room together, and they're still roommates two years later. "I wouldn't have done it any differently," Liberatore said.

Most area schools use at least some criteria to match: Neat folks with neat folks. Smokers with smokers. Night owls with night owls. Some schools using surveys delve deeper and match according to musical preferences, academic majors, sports and hobbies.

Eastern also considers open-ended requests.

"I have five brothers. Put me as far away from the men as possible," one student wrote, said Bettie Ann Brigham, vice president for student development.

To ensure success, universities offer counseling and advice to roommates, and some require freshmen to sign agreements covering rights and responsibilities.

Moore College of Art and Design, a women's school in Philadelphia, helps freshmen draft contracts called "The Fine Art of Living Together."

Can visitors come during study hours? How loud can music be during studying? What's too late for a phone call? How will cleaning be divided? Will food be shared? Clothes? Art supplies?

If problems surface, contracts are renegotiated.

"In the beginning of the year, you're like, 'I love you. You can borrow anything you want.' Later on, it's like, 'Wait a minute here,' " said Sarah Tonemah, 21, a fashion-design major and residence director.

Most disagreements can be mediated, she said.

"People come from all walks of life, and they're coming into this tiny shared space," she said. "We try to help them to remember to be aware of that sort of thing."

Policies also vary widely in how schools handle requests for changing roommates once the school year is under way.

Pennsylvania State University's main campus lets students look for new quarters online at the "eLiving direct switch eBoard."

At Temple, about 10 percent switch, said Michael D. Scales, assistant vice president for student affairs.

"If the logistics allow us to move people, we do it," he said. Happy students are more likely to come back for sophomore year, he said.

At Penn, students can seek a room change three times a year and the school doesn't ask why. Last year, 104 of 5,500 asked for a change. The school moves students to vacant spaces, usually left by others who wanted a switch or who left. Other schools require students to go through counseling and "three-tier mediation." Moves are made as a last resort.

George Swank, 22, of Lancaster, said he had stuck it out through a roommate with erratic sleep habits his first year and a video-game fanatic the second. This year, the youth-ministry major at Eastern chose a quiet residence-life director.

"I think I might be picky," he confessed.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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