By Caroline J. Hanna
A visitor to 105 Converse Hall in July might have thought Torin Moore is no fan of filing paperwork. But there was an order to the hundreds of documents strewn about his yellow office. The papers were first-year housing questionnaires that the Class of 2016 had faithfully completed; they were stacked in potential 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. Each year that means figuring out the likes and dislikes of some 450 very different young people.
Amherst’s system—like those of many small residential colleges—is as simple as it is effective. Each June, Res Life emails a 19-question form to every member of the new class. It asks about everything from smoking habits to academic interests to 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 the forms are returned, an Amherst-developed computer program pulls students whose medical needs necessitate single rooms, 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. 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 Allen Hart ’82, dean of students (who is currently on sabbatical); Pat O’Hara, dean of new students; Charri Boykin-East, interim dean of
students; and Carolyn Bassett, associate dean of students—for more rearranging.
“It’s not that there is only one right choice for each person,” says Hart. “Most of our students would be able to live quite easily with any number of individuals. We try to match people up who we think will learn from one another.”
Pamela Stawasz, assistant director of res life, did first-year housing assignments for several recent classes. “We do try and put people together who may not otherwise meet,” she says. “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 two to three pairs per year. So what’s the key to success? “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 (and Amherst magazine’s summer intern), was matched with a woman from Whitefish Bay, Wis. 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. “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.
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,” maintains Boykin-East. “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.’”
Photo by Rob Mattson