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Will your roommie be a blessing or devil in disguise?
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April 10, 2008

One of the greatest make or break factors in the whole higher education abroad experience is the person or people with whom you share your accommodation.

Most Indian students who move to the US for graduate studies find apartments near their university campus which they share with others mostly to keep the costs low.

However, not being able to get along with roommates ("roomies") is the greatest reason for low productivity and hassles like breaking the lease.

So it is very prudent to give some thought to the subject. Presented here are broad factors which can be considered as "selection criteria". Each has its pros and cons. How much importance you assign to each area is totally up to you.

It is very common to see someone with whom you got along great in social settings transform into an intolerable roommate when you start sharing living space and bathrooms! Usually, bad decisions are made solely on the basis of insignificant considerations like vegetarianism and common mother tongue.

Someone whose food preferences match yours and who speaks the same language is not automatically your ideal student roommate. A common language might directly lead to longer and louder arguments.

~ Indians vs non-Indians
It is a misconception that having Indian roommates is the safest bet. It is assumed that in case of an emergency your roommate can be of greatest help if he or she hails from same part of the world. But emergencies are rare occurrences and finding out that human beings from any part of the world are just as good and helpful and share your same aspirations is one of the beauties of international education.

You can easily verify with any student organisation that roommates from different countries with diverse cultural background tend to have far fewer problems than those from same cities.

However unfamiliarity with the new place and culture makes it difficult for a majority to take a decision to share an apartment with someone from say Africa or Scandinavia. Such a move is of tremendous help in expanding your cultural horizons which equips you to succeed in our "globalised" world.

This is also the best option for people who prefer to have a room to themselves and privacy in a shared apartment.

~ Language
This issue is unique among Indians since not many other countries have the linguistic and cultural diversity of India. It is commonly observed in universities across USA that Indians from the same part/ state of India tend to stick together.

While it's natural to become friends with people who speak the same language and come from a similar culture, those factors have little to do with your success as a student.

Sometimes it is better if there aren't a whole lot of other things to talk about than academics. Living together with people from the same place back in India could quickly deteriorate into a cultural cocoon with very little knowledge gained about rest of the world despite being in international campuses and might trigger xenophobia which will not help anyone in the future workplace.

It is prudent to keep in mind that the purpose of your enrollment is education, topical and cultural, and not experience a 'little-India' in a foreign land.

~ Same Major vs different field
If your roommate is enrolled in the same programme as you, obviously they can be of help towards academic success. Subject matters can be discussed at home as well.

The downside is that such an arrangement might quickly bore you to death with home appearing not very different from school. There is also the danger of too much helping in the form of sharing assignments which in the long-run destroys the value of the education.

Having a roommate who is studying a different subject can lead to diversity in discussions and a more intuitive understanding of the world.

~ Vegetarianism, drinking, smoking, partying etc are other factors that deserve some consideration. If you were raised a vegetarian for religious reasons, then having a non-vegetarian roommate could help you get adjusted to the predominantly non-vegetarian world that exists outside India.

If you are very touchy about utensils etc, it is time to rethink such attitudes because you will not be able to eat anywhere outside and might try the patience of recruiters and team members by being a person of special needs every time the topic food comes up.

As a lifestyle, vegetarianism is healthy and appreciated in the western world, but turning your nose up at and getting squeamish at the very mention of meat is taking things too far.

~ Unhealthy habits like smoking (all kinds!) and abuse of alcohol are valid reasons for not considering someone for a roommate. However social drinking is something all teetotalers should get used to as it is ubiquitous in university towns.

~ Sharing a bedroom is common among Indian students for additional cost-cutting. This arrangement has a high chance of backfiring if your biological clock is not synchronised with your roommate's and you are regularly disturbed in your sleep by their activities. 

~ Sharing bathrooms can lead to nasty experiences for those finicky about cleanliness. It is best to have concrete agreements about cleaning schedules. Communication is crucial in such scenarios. It is common practice to enter into arrangement to share groceries and cooking. But unless there is thick friendship between roommates these lead to compromises that test the patience.

~ Once the academic workload increases it becomes very difficult to work according to schedules and plans that were agreed upon during the first few days before classes began.

Though rare, there have been incidents were roommates were responsible for thefts and credit card fraud. It is impossible to assess the trustworthiness of someone you haven't known for years under a variety of circumstances.

But it is best to break the deal at the first instance of any such serious issue and report the matter immediately to higher authorities and the police. All the universities have some form of conflict resolution centers that help deal with non-trivial problems.

There should be no compromise on safety and security aspects no matter how close culturally you are with someone.

This is why it is advisable to enter into short-term lease agreements till you get know others better. Leases can be extended later if you find yourself comfortable. Making year-long commitments could lead to miserable months in the end if things don't work out as desired.

Any other issues should be discussed and sorted out as soon as they arise instead of letting them simmer in silence with nothing but costly options like breaking the lease left in the end. To concentrate on your work best, it is better to have at least your own room if not an entire small studio apartment.

Ultimately, the ideal roommate is simply someone who respects your space and time. They can be Indian, non-Indian, south Indian, north Indian, West Indian, American, young, old, male, female, engineer, biologist or manager. They need not share your ideas, ideals, language, culture or lifestyle.

Remember, you are not marrying this person but simply sharing living space with them for a brief period of time. It is great to have roommates who go on to become life-long friends but that is not the need.

Similarly it is quite possible that your life-long best friend might end up being a lousy roommate. As a student, you need someone who can provide a positive experience but if not at least not create a negative one.

The writer is a student at Texas A&M University, USA.

Have you studied abroad? Do you have advice for students heading abroad? Helpful tips on how to tackle the visa interview or applications process? Did you encounter unexpected roadblocks when you applied to a foreign university but managed to overcome them? Are there paperwork issues that students should know about but don't? Write in to with your advice and we'll publish your tips right here on

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