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Why You Shouldn't Turn Your Dorm Into a Barbie Dreamhouse

A Personal Perspective: Are dorm essentials really essential?

Key points

  • College is a new home, and that sense of home is found outside one's room.
  • Getting outside one's dorm room and comfort zone is vital for countering isolation, stress, and anxiety.
  • The time before move-in is best spent banking memories instead of breaking the bank on unnecessary items.

As a college professor for nearly three decades, and with a new academic year upon us, I find myself thinking about all the new beginnings that are right around the corner. I think a lot about new college-bound students and their parents preparing for the big move, anticipating a new environment in which to live, work, play, eat, and sleep.

Source: Sandra Gabriel/Unsplash
Source: Sandra Gabriel/Unsplash

With back-to-school season in full swing, college students and parents, and especially mothers, are laser-focused on dorm rooms. Yes, it’s wonderful to have a nice room and an even better roommate. But what if I told you that you could have a winning college experience regardless of what your room likes like?

If you go around and ask people what their best memories are from college, it’s likely that the most indelible memories have absolutely nothing to do with one’s room. Actually, this is good news for both students and parents. It takes away some of the pressure—financial and emotional—of having every single little thing picked out and ready to go. And it frees people to concentrate on other things in this last month before college starts such as seeing friends, being with family, and visiting some favorite places before leaving. Is it more fun to hike the nearby arboretum, tube down a river, try a new recipe for decadent chocolate chip cookies, and watch movies, or do a fourth run to Target to return the pillows that didn’t go well with the extra-long bed sheets and duvet you ordered online and were trying to match with your roommate?

College is a living laboratory for experimenting with how to make good choices, how to use your time, and with whom it’s most worthwhile to spend it. Those tender weeks before move-in day are a good time to practice presence and consider what really matters in the long run. It’s also a great time for thoughtful and compassionate conversations about dating, relationships, sex, drinking and substance use on campus, adjusting to college and new roommates, missing friends and making new ones, dealing with stress, coping with homesickness, finding mentors at school, and figuring out in advance what to do if classes become a struggle. The thing is, if you really think about it, getting overly swept up in all the minutiae of S hooks, rugs, and peel-and-stick wallpaper can wind up being a control and avoidance strategy for dealing with these much harder, yet undeniably more important, issues.

The vast majority of colleges and universities are situated within walking or easy driving distance of places that cater to college students. This means it is relatively easy to get what you need. And for anything you forget or realize you need once you’re there, there’s always a way to order things online and have them delivered or to share a ride with a new neighbor to pick up last-minute items. Anyway, this is good practice since college is about learning what you most need and want and locating the people, centers, and resources to then help you find the answers yourself.

Whatever is purchased, the choices should be solely the student's and not what a parent wants the room to look like. This isn’t a nursery, after all. It’s the time when students can choose the colors and designs that speak to them.

Most students and parents tend to over-buy in advance and find there’s nowhere to put all of what they lugged to college. When I see pictures of dorms with elaborate furnishings and console tables or settees between beds, glass coffee tables with sharp edges, and velvet or leather poufs between beds, all I can think of is the obstacle course this creates when a student tries to access their bed, whether sober or tipsy. Plus, there’s the practical side, which is that the calming colors of the white duvet and pastel-colored rug, sheets, and pillows look a lot less tranquil within a few weeks of people living together in such tight quarters and being less than fastidious. Moreover, in terms of practicality, it makes little sense to agonize over every detail of décor and to spend so much time on it when so much of it shows up in the dumpster in May.

Beauty is important and it can be pleasurable to have nice stuff, but it’s useful to keep things in perspective and to remember that this is a dorm room and not a first condo or house. When rooms are so overly glitzed-up to look like a showplace, I’m left wondering what a student has to look forward to later in life. It’s like the prom proposals that resemble engagement photos.

Every semester I work with students who talk to me about their stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, and the vast majority of them reveal the extent to which they have holed up in their rooms. With apartment-style dorms that mistakenly put too heavy a premium on privacy, and a cozy set-up of a large-screen television, surround-sound speakers, and chenille pillows, students are more likely to retreat there alone, tethered to their phones and social media.

At the risk of sounding very old, I’ve come to see the positives when Pottery Barn Dorm wasn’t a thing, when there weren’t interior designers specializing in dorms, when Pinterest boards didn’t exist, and the plastic crates I used for storing sweaters were enough. I’m almost wistful for that horrifyingly small room with cinderblock walls that I shared 35 years ago at the University of Wisconsin where we didn’t even have space for two desks so the idea of transforming those into makeup stations was absolutely out of the question.

The room was too cramped to want to spend much time in it, other than to sleep. It turns out that’s the whole point—to be continually pushed out of the nest, to meet new people, to have new adventures, and to encounter new versions of yourself. For the college experience to be successful and meaningful, people have to leave their rooms. Rather than attempt to create the perfect home away from home within the room, it's crucial to remember that it's only when stepping outside of the room that you can begin to make the campus, and the college experience itself, a new space to house your dreams.

More from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
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