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How you met your roommate: Room assignment at Princeton

At first glance, Anna Leader ’18 and Alexandra Mendelsohn ’18 might seem like practically the same person. Besides being brunette and around the same height, they were dressed in similar outfits when I met them for the first time. Leader then accidentally introduced herself first as Allie (Mendelsohn) before realizing her mistake, adding to the overall confusion.

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The similarities only became more remarkable as the conversation went on. In spite of being from opposite sides of the world, Leader from Luxembourg and Mendelsohn from New Jersey, the two of them share strangely similar life experiences. “We have a lot of weird similarities … like we’d both written three novels before coming here. And our moms both had seven siblings,” Mendelsohn said.

The most remarkable aspect of their friendship, however, is that it began when Leader and Mendelsohn were randomly placed into a double together in their freshman year. Somehow, Forbes College managed to pair two people who have impressively similar personalities, interests and physical characteristics.

Both Leader and Mendelsohn had been anxious about meeting their roommates before coming to campus, as they had heard the horror stories about pairs who had clashed terribly. However, after meeting each other, they soon realized that they shared a deeper connection.

Now, they are practically inseparable — and they are still roommates as sophomores. According to them both, they go to the gym together, eat most of their meals together, share many of the same friends, and last year, even had 80 percent of their classes together. Of course, the last of these similarities is helped by the fact that both of them are comparative literature majors.

Could this pairing have just been serendipitous? Mendelsohn does not think so. “It feels like it’s not that random — I think there’s too many weird similarities between us.”

They have plenty of theories about how they might have been put together. The matriculation housing form that all incoming freshmen fill out over the summer is one thing they think may have been a major factor.

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“I have a vague memory of at least considering asking for somebody who writes, because I knew that I tend to click with people who write. I don’t remember if I actually did — but if I did then I would imagine that that had something to do with it,” Mendelsohn said.

Leader noted that she did remember responding on the survey that she liked to write. Both also requested a politically liberal roommate, and Leader put that she was a vegetarian while Mendelsohn said she was a pescaterian.

Another theory that Leader has is that international students and local students from around New Jersey tend to get paired together as roommates. “I didn’t know anyone in this area, so it would’ve been hard. I know it’s in other colleges too, like Brown explicitly told my sister when she was on a college tour that they put internationals and locals together,” she said.

Theories aside, how does the whole roommate system actually work? There is a method to the madness, but the perfect match of Leader and Mendelsohn as roommates is as much a result of pure chance as it is a result of intentional placement.

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Angela Hodgeman, the manager of undergraduate housing, explained that at the beginning of the process, each student is electronically assigned into one of the six colleges. “The residential college assignment process is completely random — nothing is taken into consideration. The colleges do their own placement after they get their lists,” she said.

Each residential college has a Director of Student Life who is in charge of assigning students to their rooms. They are therefore the ones who are in charge of roommate matching. The Director of Student Life (DSL) at Butler College, Dr. Alexis Andres, explained that the whole process of matching up roommates is done by hand and with careful consideration.

“Personally, I rely on the Matriculation Housing Form to understand a student’s preferences,” Andres said. This includes whether a student wants substance-free housing, their sleep patterns, how many roommates they want and other considerations.

There are specific requests that are taken more seriously than others, particularly any special needs. Dean Bryant Blount is specifically in charge of handling the special needs housing process, which is done before the DSLs begin the matching process. It is meant to “ensure that those students with documented medical needs can get those needs met in their assigned college. Sometimes the special needs requests included documented medical needs for single rooms, but often the requests deal with mobility issues and/or allergy concerns,” Andres explained.

Matching roommates by hand, however, means that not everything can be taken into account. Certain requests can go unfulfilled if others are deemed more important. “We ended up in an all-girls hallway last year, and none of us requested it. But then one girl who did ask for an all-girls hallway ended up in the co-ed hallway downstairs,” Leader and Mendelsohn said.

This can create problems, as roommates can sometimes have difficulties adjusting to one another’s habits, whether it be messiness or sleep habits.

Jordan Colvin ’19, who lives in Whitman College, currently lives in a quad with three other people, all of whom had asked for a quad. He believes that this may have been the reason why they were all paired together, but the result is that the four of them are not very similar. “One of my roommates is really into playing black-and-white movie music, and I definitely sleep a lot later than the rest of them,” he said.

Leader and Mendelsohn told a story about a pair of roommates living near them who were not quite compatible. “One roommate came in and threw up at 3 a.m. the night before the other’s midterm,” Mendelsohn said.

However, differences in habits do not equate to incompatibility. Mendelsohn and Leader later explained that the aforementioned pair of roommates were still very good friends. “They shared a passion for video games, and they smoked cigars together and they played weird music together,” Leader said.

Colvin agreed, emphasizing that the differences between his roommates and him have not caused any strife. “We’re all very different people, but we definitely get along well,” he said.

The Directors of Student Life cannot assure that every pairing is a successful one with the current process, but Andres said that she is open to trying other possibilities in the future. “It would be interesting to explore a computer matching program that could help create roommate groupings based on the students’ requests and the available bed configurations in the residential colleges,” she said.

Other universities such as Boston University and Cornell University allow for incoming freshman to select their own roommates. Many students will create Facebook groups to choose their own roommate rather than allow the school to assign them one.

There aredownsides to this process, however. Leader does not think that letting freshmen find their roommates online is a good idea. “I wouldn’t have wanted that responsibility. I would have been really stressed out about that — especially based on someone’s Facebook profile, I don’t trust my ability to gauge people off of the internet,” she said.

“It’s weird, because I’m totally okay with being assigned to a random roommate that I know nothing about, but I don’t feel okay with picking a random roommate that I know nothing about ... but if you chose your roommate, there would be a lot of pressure for it to turn out great, which doesn’t happen if you’re assigned one,” she added.

According to University spokesperson Martin Mbugua, “No significant changes have been made [in past years] and there are no changes planned for the foreseeable future” in terms of the room assignment process at Princeton.

There is technically an option for freshmen who are truly incompatible with their roommates to request a change of housing through their DSL.That being said, there is one issue with this failsafe, which is that the University is currently short on housing spaces after over-enrollment from the classes of 2016 and 2019. “The college bed spaces are often completely filled ... this is currently the case in Butler for first-year students,” Andres said. “Usually the first response to a student with roommate difficulties is for the RCA to sit down with the students and try to mediate the situation.”

While not all roommates may end up quite as compatible as Leader and Mendelsohn, a key part of the freshman year experience is that of living in a dorm, whether it be in a single or with roommates. It serves not only to force freshman to learn how to adapt to complex social situations, but also as a way to accustom students to how Princeton functions as a living community.

“We want their residential college to feel like home, and having a good roommate match, or matches, can be the key to making the college feel comfortable and welcoming,” Andres said.

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