On roommates, living alone and independence through space

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

This past summer, I traveled to Sweden to do a week of job shadowing in city government, followed by three weeks of classes on Swedish language and social systems. I funded this experience through my Imagine Fellowship, an amazing opportunity that Luther offers to 10 students in each incoming class, to be used during the student's junior or senior year.

This was my third trip in Sweden and my second time spending an extended amount of time there, after a month-long summer trip spent visiting relatives by myself before my senior year of high school. Already being familiar with many Swedish customs upon arrival allowed me to delve deeper during this trip, and Sweden retained the ability to surprise me and push me to grow.

One of the biggest surprises this time was my dorm. I stayed in student housing at Uppsala University while I was taking my classes. My program's website assured me that I would not have a roommate and my room would include "a private full bathroom, a fridge and a pantry with a microwave," but I hadn't been entirely sure whether to believe this before I set foot in the room myself.

The website turned out to be accurate. In fact, I've taken to referring to that dorm in Uppsala as "my first apartment." For three weeks, I had a bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette (with not only a microwave but also a stove, albeit one whose usefulness was limited thanks to the sensitivity of my smoke detector) all to myself. Coming from American dorm life, where I've shared a bathroom with as many as 30 people, a bedroom with two, and a kitchen with somewhere around 200, this was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

Now, I have nothing against American dorm life. In fact, last year I wrote a post for this blog titled "My co-ed cluster: a love story, but not the one you might expect" about how much I loved my cluster. But the stark contrast between the two experiences made me curious, and I decided to take advantage of my time in Sweden to dig into the reasons behind the different ways Sweden and America house their college students.

What I found out, both from talking to Swedes and from reading books like "The Almost Nearly Perfect People" by Brit-turned-Dane Michael Booth and "The Nordic Theory of Everything" by Finn-turned-American Anu Partanen, is that independence is one of the highest goods known to the Nordics. Since living alone is a sign of independence, it is a highly valued and respected means of living.

But there are plenty of American college students who would rather not have roommates; Luther typically does not have any trouble filling its single rooms, after all, and more people might apply for those rooms were they cheaper. One of the explanations behind the contrasting trends in Sweden and America is the sort of societal norms and institutional structures that lead American students to have roommates and Swedish students to live alone. For starters, the Nordics take very seriously the notion that adulthood begins at 18. And, to a Nordic, making an adult live with, well, anyone, just feels wrong. In fact, Sweden has the highest rate of one-person households in the entire world.

The result of this attitude toward adulthood is that Swedes don't build American-style dorms when they build student housing. Instead, they build apartments, fit for adults. And as I lived in my apartment this summer and did all the things that living there entailed - walking the two blocks to the grocery store by myself, buying food and making myself dinner, for example - I felt more like an adult than I ever had in my life.

Now, there are certainly those who argue that American-style dorm living teaches necessary life skills. Luckily for me, my roommates have been so wonderful that living with them hasn't taught me much about conflict resolution, but I suppose I have learned about sharing space and communicating through living with them, and I've definitely learned about myself.

I don't want to say that either the American model or the Swedish model is better or worse. For one thing, they're each the next step in their culture's progression from infancy to adulthood, and those two progressions look very different from one another. The Swedish students who live in apartments grew up walking, biking and taking public transit wherever they felt like going, without adult supervision, from about the age of 11. The American students who live in dorms typically did not.

What I do want to say is that, in the wake of my time living alone in Sweden, I feel more ready to face the world than I ever had before, and I wish more people could have that experience. Luther already has some provisions to help people do that: this year I live in Baker Village in a house with six single rooms, which feels like the right amount of personal space after my Swedish summer and is a good stepping stone between having roommates and living alone. Luther also has robust study abroad programs that allow students to experience different cultures and, therefore, different ways of thinking about adulthood.

Living with roommates has helped me move out of my parents' house without getting too lonely. Living alone taught me to fend for myself, trust myself and keep myself company. I wouldn't trade either experience, and I only wish that more people got to do both while in college.

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