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'Like camp, only better'

Globe and Mail Update

If you thought dorm life was all about a saggy mattress, a noisy hallway and a dirty shower — it's time to think again. Living in residence is a far cry from the basic roof over the head and food on the table hum-drum it once was.

"Students are looking at how residences can fulfill life outside of the classroom," says Steve Fitterer, manager of housing services at the University of Victoria. "Students should make sure that a university has a physical design they can visualize themselves in, plus services that will round out their university experience."

First, take a look at the room space, how the floors are set up, the number of students housed and the age and size of the buildings. And don't forget the little details, such as the number of bathrooms per floor (no one wants to wait in line first thing in the morning) and where (and how big) the laundry room is.

Location on campus can also be important: You should know how far it will be to drag a wearied body to class every Friday morning. But that's only the beginning. It's crucial to sniff out other services, advises Susie Dwyer, a manager of residence services at the University of Calgary.

"Students often look at location but they don't always look at the extras, which can be just as important," she says. "Schools with standard plans are a good bet, like the ones that have package deals on Internet, phone hook-up and utilities ..... having that stuff taken care of makes the transition much, much easier."

And then there are the options such as health centres, in-house athletic facilities, well-lit and well-kept study spaces, and student bars and pubs.

For students who are determined to discover new interests and have a high quality of life, looking at campus facilities beyond the dorm room is crucial.

Walking 15-minutes from parking a car to the residence, if lot availability is poor, can be a safety issue. Having areas where you can study outside of your dorm room that are nearby, especially if your roommate is a party animal, may be the key to keeping up your grade-point average.

Signing up for rez means being ready to take a bit of a risk: Once you've agreed to live in residence, generally the universities decide where you'll end up.

"Make sure that if you're choosing a school with greatly differing quality of residences that you are prepared to take the gamble and get stuck with the worst one," says Kate Gordon, a third-year student at Carleton University.

So how does it work? Once you've been accepted to the school and decide you want to live in residence, you must fill out a residence form. It's the only chance students often have to present their wish list on where they'll live and who they'll live with.

Don't take it lightly, warns Katrine Hermann, a second-year student at Carleton University. "I filled it out passively because I wanted to think I would be easy-going about living with anybody," she explains. "I didn't think I would care when I got a roommate who kept late hours, but it was the opposite — I didn't realize the consequences of not being honest with myself."

It's important to weigh all the potential options and figure out what and who you can live with, and what you simply cannot live without.

If the idea of being smack dab in the centre of it all is your own version of purgatory, then residence may not be for you, and realizing that sooner rather than later will save you time, money and nervous energy. Flunking out due to borderline insanity caused by lack of control over your living environment is not an option.

But if you approach residence with a flexible attitude about learning from all different sorts of people and their quirky habits, then your experience can be even more enlightening than any classroom time.

"The best thing about living in residence was having people so close," says Joshua Mohan, a second-year student at Acadia University. "But the worst thing about living in residence is having people so close."

With all the action and drama, it's hard not to get sucked into the residence universe. Some people may love their time in residence a little too much.

"Some people got totally stuck in the 'rez' bubble, and they wouldn't go out of the building for weeks on end," says Colin Bell, a second-year student at McGill University. "One girl on our floor, who took all of her courses on-line, managed to make it two weeks without setting one foot out of her room, except to go down to the cafeteria."

The trick to any successful residence stay is finding balance between being comfortable in your room, comfortable with the people on your floor and in your building, and making an effort to explore all the things that on-campus life has to offer. Most importantly, it involves being comfortable with yourself — and learning when to grin and bear what will be temporary difficulties. Rez life doesn't last forever and it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see how well you can adapt to trying circumstances (like the mystery omelette at breakfast) that will one day make a great trip down memory lane.

"It [residence] is like camp, only better, because you know it's the beginning of an amazing few years," says Jennifer Withrow, a third-year student at Queen's University. "If you treat it as a transition period to the rest of your time at university, you'll learn how to make the best of your time there."

How it works

Living in residence for the first time will undoubtedly be a shock. But there are some things that help you adjust:

Your roommate

  • If possible, contact him or her ahead of time to avoid first-day jitters and work out small logistics in advance — like who'll be bringing the mini-fridge.
  • Have a frank talk about habits — bedtimes, wake-up, guests and special needs, such as medical conditions and allergies. Be honest about what you can handle, and what will drive you up the wall. And be prepared to give and take.
  • Don't switch rooms if it's not working immediately, unless your safety is compromised. It's tempting to totally lose it when a roommate seem to be extremely difficult, but they're settling into their own routine as much as you are into yours.

    Your floormates

  • Don't spend more than 15 minutes in the shower, especially during the morning crunch when hot water and time are in short demand.
  • Don't leave your crunchy old bar of soap or used disposable razor in the shower for convenience. And wear flip-flops, if not for yourself, for the next person who'll use the shower.
  • Bring cartons of microwave popcorn, which will become the snack of choice for the entire year. The trail of smell to your room is an open invitation to make new friends.
  • Leaving every weekend to visit friends or family won't help you adjust. Put in a solid effort early and it will pay off when you start making off-campus housing decisions or need notes for midterms.

    If you have problems

  • Resident advisers and dons are the first line of authority. They live in the residence and provide support, plan activities, mediate conflicts and, when they have to, enforce the rules. Talk to them if you need guidance on finding a doctor or what to do if your neighbour's obnoxious comments are driving you crazy.

    If living with your roommate is a threat to your sanity, you and your don can approach the residence life co-ordinator and the dean. Sometimes it takes a bit of time for a reshuffle, but things can usually be ironed out.

  • Resident managers are full-time staff who oversee the residence from year to year and often have the power to make major changes. If you have serious problems with the facilities or your resident adviser or don, resident managers are the people to go to.
  • If you have a long-range concern, like getting a pop machine on your floor or about the amount of certain residence costs, talk to student organizations and representatives. Many universities have student council members in charge of representing residence issues or separate boards for students living on campus, who can help you lobby for what you want.
  • If your problems are beyond the scope of your floor senior or a rez adviser, such as a serious concern about a roommate or fellow student, you may need professional help. Many campuses offer, or can direct you to, confidential and cost-free sessions with professional counsellors.
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