Boarding an early morning flight out of South Bend’s airport a dozen or so years ago, I slipped into my aisle seat, unfolded my newspaper and began reading. Pretty soon I realized the man sitting next to me was staring at me intently. “Hello, Walt Collins,” he said. “Remember me?”
I didn’t. Possibly because of the early hour, nothing about this middle-age man rang a bell. I was about to fumble through an apology when he added: “We were roommates.”
And so we once were. Tom, Pete and I were crammed into a second floor room in Breen-Phillips that freshman fall some 40 years earlier, and suddenly it was obvious that this was Tom. We all got along reasonably well, but at the end of the year Pete and I moved to a double in Morrissey while Tom went to another hall. (Those were the days when specific halls were assigned to each class level.)
Pete and I continued to room together for three more years, and we stayed in touch after graduation. Pete is now a practicing attorney in Dayton, and when he and Eileen come to South Bend for a football game they spend the night in our spare bedroom. I look forward to those visits and the late-night bull sessions they trigger.
The undergraduate college years are a time for forming new and, with luck, lifelong friendships. Students establish bonds by playing sports or singing with the Glee Club or team-tutoring at an inner-city school. Most often, though, it’s roommates who end up staying in touch over the decades.
Not that every roommate relationship clicks. When Carolyn LaFave ‘04 thinks back to her first day at Notre Dame, she winces at the memory of the ugly curtains in her Farley Hall room: “They were very drab, a gloomy tan color; they had no pattern, no shape or style.”
On that Freshman Orientation day, LaFave was one of three women assigned to a Farley triple. She hit it off right away with Christine, the first roommate she met, and they decided to leave campus to pick out curtains. When they returned to the room, they found curtains already hanging on the windows, courtesy of the third roommate’s mother. And they were ugly.
It was not an ideal start for the threesome, and things didn’t improve. LaFave’s roommates turned out to be “completely opposite personalities, and they really clashed. There were lots of little things and it could get very tense. I was kind of the mediator.”
Then came a weekend when the third roommate was away and LaFave and Christine decided they’d lived long enough with ugly curtains. “So we just took them down.” The pair worried a bit over how they’d explain the missing curtains when their roommate returned. “Chris was like, we could say we had a fire and they burned?”
As it turned out, they never had to explain. None of the three ever said a word about the bare windows.
Because first-year students at Notre Dame have no say in what hall they’re assigned to or who their roommates are, there’s a potluck quality about entering this University. Unlike some schools, where incoming students fill out personality forms (some go so far as to administer the Myers-Briggs personality inventory), Notre Dame freshmen are assigned halls, rooms and roommates entirely at random as a way of broadening their social experience.
Scott Kachmarik, associate director of residence life and housing, oversees the assignment process. Around the first of every June, the admissions office sends him confirmation cards from accepted students. Anyone with medical requests, handicaps or other special needs is pulled out of the general pool and given an appropriate hall assignment, but from there on a computer program takes over.
“We strive for geographic dispersion,” he says. “We don’t want people from the same high school or the same town to end up together, and we want to spread the students as evenly as possible.”
For Brian Borchard ‘04, random selection worked just fine. He met his roommate in their Knott Hall double on an August day in 2000, and “I sensed he was a lot like me—we looked the same in terms of size and cultural background. We hit it off right away and did stuff together that orientation weekend.”
It helped that the two had been in touch before they arrived on campus. Says Borchard, "We talked over the summer. We discussed how to divide up what we’d bring and what we’d have to buy." Also in the pair’s favor was the fact that Borchard had shared a room at home with his younger brother. So when his Notre Dame roommate “pretty much took charge of where he wanted to sleep, that was fine with me,” he says. “I’m pretty easygoing with that kind of stuff. Living with a brother, I learned to pick my battles.”
Sister Sue Bruno, OSF, who’s been rector of Pasquerilla West for 11 years, says the roommate equation has three possible outcomes: friends for life, roommates of convenience or incompatibility. She adds: “More stay together than I would ever believe.”
When conflict occurs, she says, it’s often because “the idea of living in community is so foreign—they’ll turn on the lights when entering the room even though a roommate is sleeping. Or they’ll send instant messages (via the Internet) all through the night. Many students had their own rooms at home, and there can be a lack of respect on the part of one or the other. They’ll leave their things in common areas and even take furniture from a common area and put it in their rooms.” A frequent irritant, she adds, occurs when one roommate wants to have friends over and the other doesn’t.
Bruno tries to minimize potential conflict among her charges by giving freshmen a survey on their first day that includes questions about “what drives me crazy” and encourages roommates to work out schedules. If problems arise anyway, she deals with them through interventions. “It starts with an R.A. spending time with one roommate, then the other. Then there’s a follow-up meeting. If necessary, I’ll have a conversation with them.”
Would the odds of success be any better if the University tried to match personalities or allowed freshmen to select their halls? You’ll never convince Kachmarik. “Our philosophy is that no two residence hall experiences are alike, and one’s no better than another. I’ve worked in other places with roommate-matching systems, and the research shows you won’t increase the chances of roommate satisfaction either way. It’s easier to justify the random approach.”
There are occasional horror stories, he admits. “In my first year here we had two roommates who ended up throwing punches at each other, and we had no place for them to go. They had to stay there and work it out. In the beginning they were staying in other guys’ rooms, though later it cooled off.”
But things seldom escalate to that point, and Kachmarik says the hall rectors are to thank for that. “We don’t have 22- or 24-year-old hall directors here who are just keeping the peace and keeping the building safe. We have rectors who are seasoned ministers who really deal with a lot of the issues.”
One of the most seasoned of Notre Dame’s rectors is Father George Rozum, CSC, ‘61, ’80MSA in Alumni Hall. He’s been there for 26 years and has a technique to deal with conflict that seldom fails: On the rare occasions when a student becomes seriously disruptive, he points out that such behavior will make it difficult to find anyone willing to room with him sophomore year.
What the University won’t do is relocate freshmen because of incompatibilities. “We take a firm stance,” says Kachmarik. “We’re not going to start shuffling. The logistical realities are that being above 100 percent capacity, there is simply nowhere to make a change. Our philosophy is that it’s important for students to learn to live together, to compromise and work out differences without the ‘bailout’ possibility. We expect people to get along.”
Getting along can require aplomb. When Bill McGowan ‘57 was a senior, his roommate was the president of the Glee Club. “I took messages for him,” recalls McGowan, which meant—in an era when there were no telephones in student rooms—he had to do a lot of running back and forth to the hall phone.
For Bill Kirk ’84, ’91J.D. aplomb was not enough. As a late-applicant freshman he was assigned to a nine-man suite in Holy Cross Hall that he terms “disastrous.” The nine students were an ill-suited bunch, and one of them was an acquaintance of Kirk’s from grade school “whom I had never liked.”
In the 1980s, Holy Cross Hall, above Saint Mary’s Lake, was a deteriorating, out-of-the way, century-old building slated for demolition in 1991. Kirk, who is now associate vice president for residence life at the University, petitioned for a hall transfer along with two others from the nine-man suite, and the housing office agreed to let them move for sophomore year. Kirk went to a Morrissey double with “a guy who didn’t even want to room with me. But we ended up being great buddies and spending four years together.” They’re still good friends.
Freshman year is when problems surface most often. In the upper grades, selectivity is at work and incompatibilities are fewer. Bill McMurtrie ‘60 considered himself fortunate in the fall of his sophomore year to room with a promising baseball player named Carl Yastrzemski—so promising, in fact, that he had already signed on with professional baseball. McMurtrie, also a ballplayer, remembers Yaz as “a great guy who coveted his anonymity on campus.” And off as well. “We used to go to a pub and nurse three draft beers for the whole evening and no one bothered us.”
Because Yastrzemski left Notre Dame that spring to concentrate on his baseball career, the roommate experience was brief but the friendship was lasting. "Yaz was one of the best athletes I’d ever seen," says McMurtrie, who cherishes one of the special rings Yaz had made for 10 close friends when he retired from the game in 1983. “I was always certain he’d make it to the majors, but the Hall of Fame? How can you guess something like that?”
Celebrity-in-waiting classmates aren’t always so easy to spot. Bill McGowan ‘57 recalls that one of his classmates was Phil Donahue, later to become a TV talk show star. But back in the ’50s, “he was just a guy who was in plays in Washington Hall,” shrugs McGowan, who himself achieved a measure of visibility as national president of the Alumni Association in 1973-74.
More roommates might end up staying together the full four years if it weren’t for Notre Dame’s international study programs. Students who go abroad don’t always manage to get reunited with their former roommates, and sometimes they don’t even get back into the same hall—a situation most find irksome. A majority of the room changes that Kachmarik processes involve overseas students—and some 350 are either going or returning every semester.
“I respect the international program” says P.W.‘s Sister Sue Bruno, "but it disrupts community. After a semester abroad, students expect to come back to their hall, but sometimes we don’t have room." At Christmas break last year, P.W. sent 24 students abroad and had 26 returning; two of the returnees had to go to Farley.
It’s not just living space that may change when students go abroad. “They come back expecting to find things the same,” says Bruno, “but they’re not the same. Roommates now have boyfriends or have grown in different ways from the overseas kids. The greatest social growth occurs between the sophomore and junior years, and that’s amplified if the student is abroad.”
Despite the random assignment of first-year students, surprising match-ups can occur—a phenomenon that Heather Rakoczy ‘93, rector of Pangborn Hall for the last six years, blames on "God’s sense of humor."
“I cannot tell you the number of times that a woman’s sister has been placed in this hall,” she says; “or two people from the same high school have been in the same hallway, or the only five students from Oregon were assigned to our hall.”
Among last year’s Pangborn seniors were two women who moved into the hall as freshmen. As they were unpacking the day they arrived, their parents discovered they knew each other. “When the girls were in nursery school, both families lived in Germany,” explains Rakoczy, “and their daughters had been in the same kindergarten class. Now here they were living across the hall from each other at Notre Dame.”
Students with similar extracurricular interests also tend to find one another. Bob Franken ‘69 was news director of WSND in his senior year, and his Zahm Hall roommate was Carl Zwisler ’70, the assistant news director. Recalls Franken, who is now the coordinator of print media in the University’s Office of Student Activities: “After I graduated, Carl became news director and shared the room with his assistant news director, John Yurko [’71]. John became news director in the spring of his junior year, making 426 Zahm the home of three consecutive news directors.”
Varied as roommate experiences are, things go right more often than not, and Sister Sue Bruno’s “friendship for life” category is not uncommon. For Julia Miller-Lemon ‘05, things went right from the start. She remembers walking down a Howard Hall corridor on an August day in 2001 and hearing laughter at the end of the hallway. She knew it must be coming from her room—a quintuple—and she was nervous. Back home in Seattle, she and her sister had private rooms, so the prospect of moving in with four other people "was really frightening. At home I kinda had, like, one wing, a lot of personal space, and I knew that in a dorm I wouldn’t have any."
She walked into the room to find that the first of her roommates had claimed “the obviously good desk and the good bed. But we hit it off, and everybody gave big hugs to everyone; our families were both happy and outgoing.” Before the day was out the other three roommates arrived. “I was lucky,” Miller-Lemon says; “we all got along really well. We joked about it, because in high school we wouldn’t have been friends.”
What made the chemistry work? For Miller-Lemon, there’s no mystery about that. “I think we all came in knowing that we were going to love Notre Dame,” she says. “We came in with the mystique that we were going to be friends for the rest of our lives, and we assumed we would be. No one in our room didn’t want to be there.”
Walt Collins is a former editor of this magazine.