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How random are random roommates?

| Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The prospect of rooming with a total stranger is simply the cherry on top of the mountain of worries we had already built up as incoming college freshmen. All Notre Dame students felt this uneasiness during the months leading up to the disclosure of their long-awaited roommate assignments. After we had been left in the dark long enough for the Notre Dame room assigners to make their pairings in the alleged random manner that they do, we were informed of who we would be inhabiting a small, enclosed space with that fall.

I remember the feelings of anticipation vividly. Would I like my roommate? Would she like me? Would she tolerate my unconventional sleeping schedule or my messy habits? I remember these questions and more floating around in my head that day this past June.

2:58 p.m., 2:59 p.m., At 3 p.m. on the dot, my phone buzzed. First insight about my new roommate she is prompt. We did our introductions, covered all of our bases. We had a lot in common, the most apparent similarity being that we both ran cross-country and track all throughout high school. My running career, however, came to an end when I graduated, while hers would be furthered as a member of the Notre Dame Women’s XCTF team.

We were both delighted to possess a shared affinity for running, and also noted the unlikeliness of our coincidental pairing. It was a happy coincidence, though, so we weren’t complaining. We were, however, wondering what were the chances?

You could argue that the chances were fairly high, considering many Notre Dame students ran for a team in high school, but this instance was simply the first of many clues that support my roommate conspiracy theory.

As I met more and more of my fellow classmates, I heard many roommate success stories, as well as plenty of not-so-successful stories. Despite the amiability (or lack thereof) between any two roommates, there were, in many instances, similarities that required some careful consideration. So that is precisely what I did — considered carefully. 

One of the only outwardly professed determinants of the Notre Dame random roommate assignments is that any two given roommates cannot be from the same zip code, which sounds like a fair policy to me. What, then, were the chances of not one, but two, (possibly more) cases of freshmen roommates coming from neighboring zip codes? One pair attended four years of high school together, and now live as randomly assigned roommates. The others were friends before even arriving at Notre Dame, but they were friends whose differing zip codes allowed the algorithm to deem them “fit to room.” This newfound knowledge only heightened my preexistent suspicions. 

Residence halls Pasquerilla East, McGlinn and Knott are rumored to be STEM or engineering dorms. Obviously these dorms are not comprised of solely science majors, but it has been observed that there is a striking number of STEM majors in these halls. Additionally, non-STEM students living in these dorms more often than not have roommates that are also non-STEM majors. The thought behind grouping students of similar majors within the same dorm and rooms is to foster positive study habits and a sense of academic community for indisputably rigorous fields of study like engineering. I do not condemn this method of clustering; I think it’s a smart idea. It does, however, raise some questions about the legitimacy of the “random” aspect of the roommate policy at large.

Moreover, there is a clear correlation between a dorm’s “standard of living” (that’s what we’ll call it) and the number of donor or legacy kids who reside in that particular dorm. This is another practice that makes sense. I mean, if I donated a building, I’d want my children to reap all of the possible benefits. It is also worth noting that relatives and siblings can pull in incoming freshmen to their dorms. This further creates dorm communities that gravitate more toward sameness than the diversity intended by the University. This evidence merely confirms that there is a human hand systematizing and organizing dorm assignments. It is not completely up to the haphazard fate of a computer program, but perhaps the results of a Harry Potter-esque sorting hat. If this is so, then a rational concern to raise is, does the same premeditated, nonrandomized nature of the dorm assignments hold true for individual roommate assignments?

The intent behind Notre Dame’s random roommate policy is to expose first-years to diverse groups of people, people they might not have socialized with if given the option of choosing a roommate. I believe that the policy succeeds in this regard, but there is a notable number of commonalities between many roommates. The commonalities are hidden deep beneath the surface. They are shared traits, passions and experiences that might have revealed themselves perhaps in a certain essay read by certain administrators of a certain University.

I have a friend whose college essay was written about cultural immersion and her time spent living abroad during the early years of her life. Her random roommate is an international student with plenty of distinct cultural experiences and customs to share with my friend — my friend who explicitly told the University she was looking to experience other cultures in college.

I can just see it now the housing administrators sitting around a long table, sifting through resumes and essays, finding the ideal pair of roommates with just the right amount of differences and similarities to make it work. It’s a foolproof plan, one that produces a balanced number of success stories and nightmares. After all, they have to keep the sorting hat method a secret, or else the whole brand will be ruined.

Notre Dame prides itself on its random roommate system. This institution is one of the few colleges that still implements such a policy. It is one of the many uniquely Notre Dame things that makes this school special. So if Notre Dame is proud of this practice and students (for the majority) also appreciate it, then why does the University mess with a good, random thing?

Now that I have outlined my conspiracy theory, it is up to the general public to support or oppose my claims. While my findings are certainly telling, they are not comprised of enough solid evidence to directly challenge the authority of the Office of Residential Life. No, that is not my intent, and for that reason, it will remain as a conspiracy theory, until more evidence surfaces. Until then, maybe ask your freshman year roommate what they wrote their college essay about …

Meghan Cappitelli is a freshman studying economics and English at Notre Dame. A native of Long Island, New York, she enjoys running, procrastinating and eating ice cream for dinner. She can be reached at [email protected] or @meghancapp on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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