The unabridged experience of living with 270 people
I have been living in a dorm ever since moving to Venice, Italy four months ago. Last September 8th, I stepped inside the building that would become my home for at least a year, the overwhelming feelings of leaving home coming down my shoulders as I carried my heavy luggage on my own, opened the door of my room/house/everything and contemplated its bareness. The sense of unfamiliarity made me shed some tears (I had left my parents at the other side of the world) and I thought that surely I had made a mistake in coming at all. But once I overcame the initial feelings, I set out to make that place my own. It has been a process of learning, adapting, growing, being frustrated, and ultimately, enjoying it. Here’s life inside a dorm, unabridged. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
One Kitchen to Rule Them All
At my residence we initially had one kitchen (upgraded to two kitchens in October). One kitchen for 270 people and… no stoves. The first week or so we had to live with a microwave before they actually opened the kitchen for our use. Fridge space was also extremely limited, as we have about 11 fridges, which might sound like a lot, but in reality only allow you to have one or two boxes of tupperware that you can call your fridge space. We had to share two portable stoves among the 270 of us in order to cook; if you were lucky, you would have to wait a few minutes, but come dinner time and the waiting line extended to at least an hour or two. Then the portable stoves broke down with overuse (duh) and we had to buy our own if we wished to continue cooking. The unfortunate event turned into a fortunate one, as the waiting line became almost nonexistent and everyone cooks at their own time. Sometimes you have to wait a few minutes but it is manageable. Win-win! Depending on your dorm, you might have a small kitchen in your room (bless you!), you might have to share an equipped one with an entire floor or the entire building, you might have to make some investments as we did, or, you might be the unlucky one that only has a microwave. While it is important that you inform yourself about the kitchen situation, it might change, as it did in my case.
Tip: Be open to the challenge and adapt! This is the time where you can learn to cook without upsetting your parents about the mess or food waste (how else will you learn?). Be creative, try new things, see what you like to do. While I invested in a portable stove, some classmates couldn’t, and they found incredible microwave recipes online. There are plenty of ideas on the internet for all tastes and diets!
The Roommate From Hell
The dreaded one, so let’s deal with it now. As I said, the dorm experience you will have is extremely personal; it changes from residence to residence, even from room to room. I’ve seen some roommates that became best friends, some that consider each other family, some that made best friends with their neighbours, others with people they’ve met in the building. Others, like me, were unlucky to have a roommate from hell, and let me tell you, it’s hard work. I might write a separate story about this but the one thing you need to know is that having a bad roommate is a possibility. Tips online say that it is a good idea to lay out some rules from the very first day, to not live with your best friend, to cooperate as much as possible, respect each other, etc. While I do agree with these tips, the reality is that sometimes your roommate is evil and there is nothing you can do about it. Mine liked to complain about everything I did and in spite of my changing the habits that annoyed her, she did not change hers nor had a basic sense of respect towards me. It’s a matter of luck.
Tip: try to work out an arrangement but if in the first week you notice red flags, do not ignore them. People are on their best behavior at the beginning but something inevitably slips. If your gut feeling is that the roommate you got will be a problem, chances are he/she will be. Speak to administration about moving to another room early on.
Survival of the Fittest
Dorm life is not comfortable but if you learn to adapt it can be good. If you go into a dorm expecting it to be exactly as your own home, you will be heading to disappointment. Of course, if the dorm does not have basic standards it might be a problem, but you must keep in mind that dorms come with challenges. Once you overcome them, you feel proud of yourself. I believe that this is, if not a necessary experience, one that aids in adulthood. But only if you adapt. Many people have the time of their lives in a dorm and that is because they are open to circumstances and deal with them the best as they can, some in companion with good friends, others on their own. As I faced some troubles, I often felt like quitting and looking for another, better housing arrangement. But ultimately, I thought of those that have lived in my residence for four years and are happy. They inspired me to push through and learn from the experience instead of hiding in my comfort zone.
Tip: if you feel overwhelmed by dorm life, speak to other students there. They might shed some light to their own experience and the sense of comradeship will bring you comfort.
A Protective Corner
A few days ago, I had a breakdown and thought of moving out from my dorm, as the uncertainty of acquiring a single room became unbearable for the time being (I’m still waiting). I looked at other apartments and thought it might be a better option. When I went to the place to see the house I might move to, I felt uneasy. The place was so far away from everything, the other islands, main transportation, medical services, supermarkets, even from small grocery shops. It looked like a deserted place and I didn’t feel safe. Of course, this was the case for the particular apartment I saw and I have plenty of friends that are just fine on their own but for me, in my circumstances, it became clear that my residence was a protective corner, one where I knew for certain that I would be safe. So I returned and decided to stay.
Tip: while sometimes a student residence feels crowded, having so many people around you, a reception to welcome you every time you come home, and a spot where students in similar circumstances are all reunited really gives you a sense of comfort. It can be exasperating at times but a student residence does protect you more than an apartment in a solitary neighborhood.
In my residence I have become a planning master. My situation is as follows: I only have two 20cm tupperwares to store my food, no pantry except what I can keep in my bedroom, and little time to go to the supermarket that is one hour away. The laundry room is also limited for the amount of people here and cooking in the kitchen takes some time because I must wait for the electric stove to cool down afterwards. Thus, I have become a planning expert. I meal plan religiously, shop once a week for a small amount of ingredients that can fit in my fridge. I have a portion sized selection of tupperware that replaces the ingredients with the food I have cooked and it also lasts me a week. Laundry day is on friday nights or saturday mornings when most students are asleep; likewise the weekly clean of my room is done once a week, either while I wait for my laundry to be done or the day after. I have set specific days for each task.
Tip: it takes a while to figure out your system and you might not be a planning enthusiast like me but I highly recommend that you set aside the same days for the same tasks every week. It will bring you peace of mind as you won’t worry whether you have clean clothes or enough food.
Expert House Manager
From learning about basic plumbing to dealing with insects in spite of having a phobia of them, living in a dorm has taught me certain skills that have made me grow up. My dorm was a bit disgusting when I arrived, which wasn’t as much of a problem to deal with as were the spiders looming there. I have arachnophobia and have always relied on my parents to kill the insects. I didn’t have that option here. I wasn’t able to sleep knowing that these things were in my room, so one day that I was alone, I armed myself of courage, bought an insecticide and fumigated all my side of the room. I screamed and cried while I did it, as my phobia was certainly not overcome, but once I finished my task, I am proud to say that no insect has approached my territory and I can sleep peacefully. I reapply the spray every two weeks and don’t need to be bothered again.
Your dorm might come with other recurrent problems as well, for example, a shower or sink that get flooded constantly. No matter how many times the technicians come and fix it, there is something about the plumbing here that doesn’t quite deal with daily life. I learned the basics of plumbing in order to not call management anymore and succeeded in unclogging my shower and sink several times (other times I did need help). Nevertheless, I no longer feel useless or helpless to deal with these things. I also had to overcome the gross factor and just take things from the shower drain, such as hair. In order to prevent further messes, I bought a small hair catcher or whatever you call those metal things and now it’s easier to use the sink and the shower.
Another problem that might be specific to Venice was learning to eliminate mold. Never in my life had I a mold problem; I’ve always dried clothes inside with no side effects. But in Venice… well, things are different. My towels turned black from one day to the other because of mold, as did my walls and window sills. I had to learn what causes mold and how to prevent it. The management fixed the bigger problem but they didn’t clean all, so I had to do some research and clean the mold spores from the windows on my own (my roommate simply refused to deal with it and didn’t care about the health hazard).
Tip: Not all students take advantage of the learning opportunities that come with managing a “house” (room) on your own but if you open yourself to the idea, you will discover how many handy skills you can learn. If you need help by all means ask for it but you can always observe and learn or try to fix it on your own. When else are you going to learn? You will feel proud of yourself afterwards
Rock and Roll All Night
Dorm life comes with student life. And most students… do not care about studying at all, especially if they are in their bachelor’s degree. I was and still am a nerd but I realize that many people are simply enjoying the freedom of living on their own and not caring much about their education. Sadly, this transfers to dealing with noise at night, late comings, and annoying roommates that enter at 3 or 4 am on weekdays. Banging doors and loud voices, laughter in the corridors, you name it. The dorm is alive 24/7. Not everyone has a sense of respect, not all dorms have rules or consequences. As I said before, it all comes down to adapting.
Tip: you can ask people to turn down the volume and if you manage an arrangement with your roommate, you will not have to worry about unexpected entrances. However, if rules are not respected or reinforced, my only tip for you is to get some earplugs (which I admit not always work), an eye mask, and do some deep breathing. It’s just some months anyway. If you can power nap during the day, please do.
PRO TIP: if you must sleep during exam season or during projects, I suggest you save some money and rent a hotel room for a couple of days. I did this for my finals, as my roommate never cared about my need to rest, and stayed in a room for 3 nights. The peace that came with it was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. I was well rested, I could concentrate, and I even relaxed before and after the exams. Since you will probably rent the room off-season the price will be lower than usual. I will definitely do this again on the next exam period, if I find the dorm is a bit restless on those days.
The Road to Adulthood
Being in a dorm means you will be on your own. You will have friends and a roommate, probably, but still, you are alone to deal with most things. And this is an incredible opportunity to grow up. I felt very mature before coming here, having graduated and worked as a teacher for two years. After dealing with noisy high schoolers, I felt I had grown up quite a bit. At home I also helped a little bit around the house and could live on my own for a few weeks. However, nothing makes you more of an adult than being, you know, propelled to independence and being forced to deal with absolutely everything on your own. At a dorm, there is no safety net. If you are studying abroad like me, even less so. Problems will come and your parents might not be able to help right away (although their full support will always bring you joy). Dealing with paperwork, bad administration, recurrent payments, house management, cooking, and more, all while balancing classes, exams, homework, study time, social time, travel, etc, will make you grow up pretty fast. I look back at what I thought dorm life was like a few months ago, and even at things that I did on the first months and find my own innocence cute. You learn and change so much in a matter of weeks, months. Your experience will definitely change you.
Tip: don’t be too harsh on yourself for the mistakes that you will inevitably make. It’s a process. Likewise, don’t stay in your comfort zone and avoid learning at all. The internet is full of guides to basic skills, hacks, etc that you can use for everything you can think of. You will look back on your experience and see how much you’ve grown. Enjoy it all.
The Nomad Life
You will have to purchase certain things for your daily use, some unexpected spendings will come along the way. Among the things I had to purchase to settle in the dorm were my electric stove, kitchen utensils, a blanket (the heating doesn’t work too much), and an assortment of cleaning supplies (including brooms, mops, etc). If you are moving country you will also require specific things for the new environment. For example, I come from Mexico where the winter is not nearly as harsh and humid as in Venice, so I had to experiment with different types of winter wear until I found the ones that worked for me. I also needed Acqua Alta boots which are unique to life in the lagoon, and snow boots for my winter vacation. The summer is also way harsher than in Mexico so my synthetic fabrics didn’t cut it and I had to switch to natural fibers. As you adapt to your new home so will your material possessions. The thing is that you will have to move again. Whether that is a semester from now, a year from now, or until you graduate, you need to be conscious of the things you will have to carry back. I, for one, will need to move a total of nine times in two years. It makes you really consider becoming an extreme minimalist, doesn’t it?
Tip: Your luggage will get bigger and there is no way to avoid it. However, something that I have been aiming at is to avoid unnecessary paperwork (scan library books instead of photocopying, download ebooks instead of paperbacks), and to have a week’s worth of clothes for every season plus an extra outfit or two and no more. Since now I have adapted to my environment, I can focus on using up everything I own and not purchase anything else for the time being. I hope my luggage reduces considerably as the semester progresses. Always keep in mind you are moving, so try to get multipurpose items or do without.
A Sense of Home
This might be slightly contradictory to my previous tip but it isn’t. Even if you aim to be a minimalist at your dorm, it doesn’t mean you can’t have personal belongings to make your room more welcoming to you. I have two very special stuffed animals that I carry everywhere (yes, I’m 25 years old) and they represent home to me. Adding a small fake plant as decoration on my desk, getting a small mantelpiece for my meal times, and a nice blanket gave personality to my otherwise bare room. You don’t have to go all out, a small piece here and there that truly brings you joy will make you smile every time you come home and make the room your own.
So this is dorm life as I have experienced it these past months. I am still to live in another dorm next year during my mobility semester and probably in an apartment when I return, which will lead to other life experiences. I hope this post was helpful for those moving into a residence. Dorm life is very fun at the core of it but it comes with its downsizes. As everything, balance is key. What have your experiences been like?