Once again, the freshers’ fortnight is entering its final days, and the dramatic shift from a two-week-long drinking binge to lectures and seminars must begin. Having just got back from a year abroad at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and going into my fourth year, I’m beginning to feel as somewhat of an elder statesman. As I watch the stream of freshers entering the SU, the glimmer of hope in their eyes yet to be drained by daily grinds in the David Wilson library, I can’t help but reflect on my time in California, and the extreme cultural differences I noticed between the ‘freshmen’ of the U.S. ‘college’ and ‘freshers’ of the U.K. university.
The most immediately noticeable difference between Long Beach University and my native University of Leicester is the mind-set of first-year students. While in Leicester, and the entire U.K. in general, the ‘freshman’ year of university is the first real taste of adult life, for many students in California, and again, likely elsewhere in the United States, this is not always the case.
In England, most eighteen-year-olds starting university leap upon the opportunity to thrust themselves into their first position of independence, often moving several hours away to the other side of the country. Conversely, many students move from within the enormous state of California. Note: it takes almost the same amount of time to drive from the top to the bottom of California as it does to drive from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England. However, the seeming majority attend Long Beach from the neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, or local cities such as Huntington Beach or Anaheim – sometimes at little as fifteen minutes away from the campus.
As a result, whereas the first weekend of first year in British universities will most likely be spent hung-over, struggling to work a gas stove and/or phoning your parents and telling them you want to come home, the first weekend in the dorms of CSULB felt like a ghost town. Almost every freshman had returned home, leaving only the unlucky few who lived too far away to just ‘pop back’ to mum and dad, and the latter year groups who had finally got to grips with the concept of living independently.
Now, while the ‘freshman’ week of CSULB obviously lacks the general debauchery of English ‘fresher’s fairs’, due to the drinking age being set at twenty-one, the mass socialisation initiated by the university’s accommodation is still rampant. And yet, underneath the slightly cheesy social events and the questions that make you feel like a broken record, “what’s your name?” “What’s your degree/major?” “Where are you from?” etc., something doesn’t feel quite right.
By continuing to live so close to ‘the nest’, many American students do not experience the jump into adulthood for which university is partially intended, but rather a baby-step into independence. It’s not just the proximity from home that promotes this stunted maturity, though. To me, the biggest perpetrator is the, quite frankly, ridiculous tradition of roommates that has existed as the norm in American universities for almost as long as the country’s inception.
I understand the theory behind having a roommate. You’re thrust into a new environment where you’re unlikely to know anyone, and expected to take on a level of work and responsibility that you’ve never before experienced. It’s a stressful time, and what better way to counter that than by giving you a guaranteed friend? Camaraderie is a sure fire way to combat homesickness and feel more comfortable, and by being forced into the same room as somebody, you have no choice but to at least try and get along with them. When it works, it works. But when it doesn’t, then what?
I was fortunate in the sense that I got on fine with my roommate in California. That being said, we had very little in common and our social and academic schedules clashed to such an extent that we barely spent anytime in the room together. I often saw him so little that I felt as though I had a room to myself, and honestly, I can’t imagine any other outcome where I would have been as happy in the United States as this.
I, like many other people, love my personal space, and the thought of having no place to be on my own is not a pleasant one. There were times when I got frustrated with not having my own space, despite the fact my roommate was remarkably sociable, so I can’t imagine what life would have been like had I shared my room with a recluse as was the case with some people I know.
And then there’s the exceedingly likely possibility of not getting on with your roommate. Even if you do at first, there’s no guarantee that things won’t deteriorate to the point that you’d want to kill one another. Even living in the same house with your best friends can eventually drive you to distraction, let alone in the same room as a complete stranger.
I saw roommates that were like peas-in-a-pod at the beginning of the semester, yelling at each other in the dorm corridor by February. I heard of, still hear of, and even got dragged into, drama between roommates who could just not get on due to their conflicting personalities. And that’s the thing; when two people’s personalities naturally clash, there’s nothing to blame except this adolescent style of assimilation to university life.
I can’t see American universities changing anytime soon. The tradition of roommates has been in place far too long for any major alterations now, but I’m sure that if American students could see the comparative maturity that emerges from a lack of somebody to hold your hand in your own room, from a space to call your own and retreat to if the pressures of such a dramatic lifestyle change get on top of you, then they’d push themselves to abolish the mandatory tradition of the first year of ‘college.’
Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, as many American students do replicate the English normality of moving a significant distance to their university to gain some independence and leap headfirst into adult life. Nonetheless, the combination of the roommate system and the reluctance to move long-distance can be a dangerous mix with noticeable impact on freshman’s maturity, something from which, thanks to inherent English hostility and unwillingness to share a room, even English students who don’t ‘fly the coop’ will not suffer.
There are many features of higher education where England could learn a thing or two from the United States, but when it comes to the first year and making the first step into what is essentially a new life, I think our transatlantic cousins could learn a lot from us.