July 26, 2012
A visitor to 105 Converse Hall this July might think Torin Moore is no fan of filing paperwork. But there’s an order to the hundreds of documents strewn about his yellow office. The papers are first-year housing questionnaires that members of the Class of 2016 have faithfully completed; they are stacked in potential—and often changing—two-person roommate combinations.
At Amherst, matching first-year roommates is a tricky and decidedly personal task—one that falls to the Department of Residential Life. Moore and others in the office look for couplings of students who would work well as roommates, not necessarily as friends. That means figuring out the likes and dislikes of some 450 very different young people.
Moore and Stawasz consider a possible roommate combination.
Amherst’s system—like those of many small residential colleges—is as simple as it is effective. In June, Res Life, as Moore’s office is informally called, emails a 19-question form to every member of the new class. It asks about everything from smoking habits to academic interests to usual bedtimes. If you’re a committed slob, a devout night owl or someone who needs to study in silence, this is your chance to speak up.
Once they receive all of the responses, Moore and his team do initial sorting using an Amherst-developed computer program. This program pulls students whose medical needs necessitate single rooms, for example, as well as those who ask to be in single-sex housing. Then the reading begins.
Moore’s approach is to print the responses, lay them in pairs on any and all surfaces in his office and mix and match. A few days later, he revisits and rearranges. He repeats this process many times. “There’s no real science to it,” he says. “It’s all based on your gut. We’re kind of like matchmakers, I guess.”
Once the matches feel right, he turns them over to others in the dean’s office—including, among others, Pamela Stawasz, assistant director of res life; Pat O’Hara, dean of new students and chemistry professor; Charri Boykin-East, acting dean of students and coordinator of academic support; and Carolyn Bassett, associate dean of students and international students adviser—for yet another round of rearranging.
“It’s not that there is only one right choice for each person,” says Allen Hart ’82, dean of students and professor of psychology (who is currently on sabbatical). “Most of our students would be able to live quite easily with any number of individuals. What we try to do is match people up who we think will learn from one another. We do our best to maximize the social and educational aspects.”
“After we do the initial sorting, we do try and put people together who may not otherwise meet,” adds Stawasz; she did first-year housing assignments for several recent classes. “Amherst College is one of the most diverse institutions in the country, and we want our students to benefit from that. Heterogeneity is really our guiding principle.”
Almost always, the match lasts the full academic year—which is more than any online dating site can claim. Moore estimates that he reassigns roughly two to three pairs per year. No one has tracked the number of first-year roommates who choose to live together again as sophomores, but Moore hears that the number is significant.
So what’s the key to success? It’s simple life preferences: study and sleep habits, hygiene, academic interests and other personal traits. The residential life staff knows little about the first-years—just their names and their answers to the questions—but they do know that if they assign a night owl and a morning person to the same room, things will likely not work out.
“All of the research shows that roommate conflicts are all about preferences,” Moore says. “I’ll hear, ‘I like to keep the room neat and orderly, and she’s a slob.’ Or, ‘I listen to heavy metal, and he listens to classical music.’ Family income, race, where they’re from—those things are not what cause problems.”
Angelina Gomez ’14, an outgoing San Franciscan, was matched with a young woman from Whitefish Bay, Wis., in 2008. Gomez, a self-described “city kid from a primarily Mexican and Chinese neighborhood” majoring in music and psychology, was unsure she’d have much in common with her quiet, suburban roommate, an environmental studies and geology major. While the two were very cordial, Gomez says, they spoke little for the first couple of weeks.
“It started out as a functional relationship and grew into a close friendship,” Gomez says. “It wasn’t a relationship that either one of us was expecting to have, but it was really fantastic that we ended up being so compatible.” They lived together again during sophomore year.
Boykin-East says Gomez’s experience is common: Many students learn to live together first and then become friends. “We’re not just assigning students to rooms,” says Boykin-East. “We’re building a floor that’s part of a residence hall that’s part of a vibrant college community.” And while the students are different every year, the basic issues in matching them up—cleanliness, sleep schedules and study habits, to name three—remain the same. In fact, the housing questionnaire and the matching process have barely changed in at least 20 years.
“When the age-old issues remain the same, what matter are the subtleties,” says Boykin-East, Moore’s predecessor. “That’s the beauty of having a human, not a computer algorithm, assign roommates. We can read the questionnaires and say, ‘Even though these two are neat freaks, they wouldn’t work together. But these two would.’”