While brief, this past long weekend provided a welcome break from the routine I’d settled into well since late August. I was, however, also very happy to board my train back down to Philadelphia on Sunday night. After all, I truly enjoy the already comfortable rhythm of attending my classes, studying at Van Pelt Library, playing a bit of tennis and, most of all, spending time with my friends.

I’ve been fortunate to meet some extraordinary people since the semester started with whom I share similar backgrounds, interests and goals. In fact, thanks to Penn’s housing policy that permits choosing one’s roommate in advance, I actually began curating my Penn social experience long before ever stepping foot on campus — a fact that made my arrival in Philadelphia for New Student Orientation and my first days at Penn quite a bit less daunting.

But is this a good thing? Might not the challenges of interacting and learning to live with totally random strangers as we start our university careers have been a valuable learning experience? We Penn students, as well as the great majority of American college freshmen, are potentially missing out on an extraordinary chance to interact with peers who do not share our backgrounds, interests and goals. In fact, choosing our roommates can reinforce an already prevalent and quite dangerous worldwide propensity to think and speak only within our social and intellectual silos. 

Instead, Penn should revert to a solely random rooming process for all incoming students.

Establishing our social circles, whether this includes Greek life or not, choosing our classes as well as developing our extracurricular activities all involve deliberate and proactive choices. By definition, we leave none of this up to chance, which is of course a good thing, and reflects our maturity to take responsibility for our individual lives.

But while talking with my cousins over the weekend — one a college senior and the other a recent graduate — I felt a bit of envy for the rich diversity of their freshman rooming experiences. Along with all Yale University freshmen, they were assigned roommates from entirely different walks of life, most with completely different interests. While they are no longer particularly close with any of those previous roommates, my relatively shy theater-loving cousin learned to cope and actually enjoy his frenetically social roommate. Similarly, my other politically active cousin relayed that debating with her Republican suitemate helped her fine-tune, articulate and defend her own positions.

Like a handful of colleges holding onto the tradition of random rooming, “Yale strongly believes that the best housing situations involve an interplay of people with different backgrounds and interests, and it is our experience that students gain much from this interplay.” My cousins’ experiences seem to bear out the value of Yale’s policy.

While what we learn in our classes is of course of paramount importance, we attend college versus living at home with our families in order to live together on campuses where we have the opportunity to interact with and learn from other highly motivated and intelligent peers.

Credit: Julia McGurk

Limiting our access to classmates who are different reinforces our natural tendency to stay safely within our own echo chambers. We have so few chances in life to live with entirely random people that stunting the growth of serendipitous conversation between diverse students right as we begin our university careers could be a very dangerous thing for society.

In fact, this danger seems to be corroborated by studies including those of David Harris, a sociologist at Cornell University, who “studied roommates and found … that white students who were assigned a roommate of a different race ended up more open-minded about race.”

Even in retrospect, given the choice to choose my roommate, I doubt I’d have been willing to leave my rooming up to chance. I really enjoyed getting to know my roommate over the summer, which made moving in logistically and emotionally easier. It was terrific to head off together to our first few on-campus meals and social events. 

But I do feel that if Penn had insisted on randomly assigning roommates, I may have been forced to have some instructive conversations. Furthermore, I might have learned to be just a bit more flexible and perhaps, “every now and then,” my roommate and I may have “even tried on each other’s values and beliefs, just to see how they fit.”

SPENCER SWANSON is a College freshman from London, studying philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is sswanson@sas.upenn.edu. “Spencer’s Space” usually appears every other Tuesday.

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