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Living with roommates

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Elizabeth Koprowski :
Whether you live on campus in a dorm or off campus in a flat or house, student life almost always means one thing - roommates. And, when you study abroad, roommates often means people from all over the world. Roommates can be great - you get to meet new people, try new foods, learn about new places - but they can also mean conflict. Dealing with people who are different from you, or who have a different world-view, can be tricky enough when you speak the same language and come from the same background, but when you throw in different customs and language barriers, roommate conflicts can become serious stress. Here are some tips for resolving conflict with your roommates and setting up boundaries and guidelines that can help prevent arguments and disagreements. Life with roommates won't always be easy, but it doesn't have to be a battlefield.
 1. Set clear living rules
One of the most important things to do when you move in with a group of new people is to sit down and establish some guidelines. Try to keep rules simple and to a minimum so that they're easy to follow, but make sure that you cover the important points. Whatever rules you establish, make sure that everyone agrees and try not to target one individual. And remember that you're all students - so studying and socializing will be important to everyone. Here's a few things to get you started:
a. Cleaning: make rules for who, when, where, and how often
b. Guests: be clear on times and types of guests
c.    Substances: non-smoking? Alcohol-free? If it's not allowed it should be stated clearly in the rules
d. Noise: establish 'quiet times' like exam periods or on weekday nights
e. Communal living: if you plan to share basics like milk, toilet paper, and utility bills, make sure you have a system for splitting the costs and monitoring refills/payments
2. Be open
Remember that the way you do things might seem as strange to your flatmates as their habits do to you. One of the best parts of studying abroad is having a chance to meet people from around the world, so be open to new ways, new cuisines, new customs, and new ideas. Dirty dishes piling up from six twenty-something guys cooking individual meals? Organize a monthly flat dinner and rotate who cooks and who cleans. Fighting over TV programs or the music playlist? If you take turns choosing the entertainment, you might just find your new favorite program or band. Another great way to get to know one another and learn about different cultures is to celebrate - birthdays, holidays, successful exams, whatever!
3. Be respectful
One of the hardest parts of communal living is dealing with all the variances of college students' schedules. So, you're a sociology major who only has classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, but your roommate is a nursing student with classes every day? It may be tempting to start your weekend on Thursday night, but remember that your roommate probably has a lab first thing on Friday and will not appreciate you pre-partying in the flat on Thursday evening or stumbling in at 4am on Friday morning. But respect isn't limited to study and sleeping times. Just because you share your living space, doesn't mean you have to give up all your privacy or can do whatever you please. If you share communal areas but have separate bedrooms, an open-door policy can help a lot - an open door means 'I'm not busy,' while a closed door means 'I don't want to be disturbed.' Be respectful in communal areas as well - don't prepare sushi at 3am and then leave the mess for your flatmates to find the next morning. Don't help yourself to others things - you probably wouldn't want your roommate rummaging in your drawers when he's run out of socks, so don't help yourself to his toothpaste without asking. And for the love of all that's good, don't finish your roommate's last spoonful of coffee on the night before the big exam!
4. Talk
Even if you've set up good ground rules and practice respectful behavior, at some point you and your roommate will probably encounter some sort of interpersonal disagreement. This is inevitable during times of stress, like exams, or if you're living with someone who is very different from you. But instead of bottling up your frustrations or complaining behind her back, talk to your roommate - right away. It may feel awkward to remind your roommate that it's annoying when she leaves her wet towel on the sofa, but it's better than blowing up when you sit in the damp spot for the six-thousandth time! And remember those weekly communal meals we suggested - they could be a great time to have a 'state of the flat' review and air any issues or grievances before they get out of hand.
5.    Get help
Hopefully, following rules, being respectful and open, and keeping an clear and regular dialog with your flatmates will help to prevent any serious issues, but if you encounter a conflict that you simply cannot resolve on your own (or if the problem is more serious, like substance abuse) you can always turn to your resident assistants. RAs are highly skilled at dealing with interpersonal conflict and have training in lots of situations and issues. Even if you live off campus, your university's student life or

(Elizabeth Koprowski is an American writer and travel historian. She has worked in the higher education system with international students both in Europe and in the USA).

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