When Mehlanie Kayra saw Alisha Richards' friend request on Facebook, she knew college was really happening for her.
Now a senior studying wildlife and wildlands conservation, the Southern California native originally walked into Helaman Halls in 2008 as a freshman at BYU hoping her roommate was as friendly in real life as she was on Facebook.
She was not disappointed.
"Meeting someone and living with them for nine months was definitely a little bit stressful," Kayra said. "It was kind of awkward at first, but you get to know each other, and it gets better."
For New York Times columnist Dalton Conley, heading to a new dorm room with no knowledge of the other person living in the space increases spontaneity and forces students to become acquainted with people they otherwise would never have experienced. Facebook can make a new roommate seem less random and new, though it can't replace what real-life interactions will be like within a roommate relationship. But, with advancements in technology, particularly with social networking, new roommates can seem less random, and Conley believes that randomness is part of what makes college exciting.
"This loss of randomness is particularly unfortunate for college-age students, who should be trying on new hats and getting exposed to new and different ideas," Conley wrote.
Many college students use Facebook simply as a means to scope out their future roommate and get a general idea of that person will be like. Kayra admitted she looked through Richards' Facebook profile to see the movies she liked and her profile pictures but still didn't feel too connected with her because "You can only find out so much from Facebook," she said. She believes Richards helped her adjust to college more easily, even though they had never met before.
"Because my roommate was so outgoing, personable and crazy (in a good way) that helped me meet a lot of people in our dorms and classes because I was so comfortable meeting her right off the bat," Kayra said.
Much like Kayra, Conley said learning to deal with people who have different opinions and personalities is a college learning experience in itself every college student should become accustomed to.
"And if you end up with the roommate from hell?" Conley said. "You'll survive, and someday have great stories to tell your future spouse, with whom you'll probably get along better."
Because the first year of college is such a new and exciting experience for most freshman, going through those challenges together can bond random roommates in a way nothing else could. Kayra and Richards keep in touch and plan on staying friends for a long time.
Facebook is not the only way to get to know a future roommate. Some colleges offer an online roommate selection program where students fill out surveys about their interests, habits and other information about themselves, and can then select a new roommate themselves based on that information. Before they have even moved in with each other, they can have an idea of how living together will pan out.
NPR's Shannon Mullen interviewed Mount Ida College's residence life director Laura DeVeau about how web-based programs can make a difference for roommates who pick each other. DeVeau said if students opt not to choose their own roommates, she will pair them the old-fashioned way but warns she does not use a completely random method. She said she loves to match a Red Sox fan with a Yankees fan as roommates.
When potential roommates can look one another up on Facebook, they will form preconceived notions before ever meeting them. Students know if their future roommate will be a computer geek, a homecoming queen-type or if they are obsessed with cats before ever seeing them in person. New York Times writer Peggy Orenstein said college was her time to reinvent herself and decide who she really wanted to be as an adult. "College was my big chance to doff the roles in my family and community that I had outgrown, to reinvent myself, to get busy with the embarrassing, exciting, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity. Can you really do that with your 450 closest friends watching?" Orenstein said.
However, an Indiana study found that being able to keep in touch with old friends on Facebook while being able to make new friends increases an individual's social capital or relationship resources. It also found that having Facebook or online friends before college can increase awareness about the future roommate and their needs and make for good starting ground.
For some students, having some information about a future roommate helps reduce awkwardness on first meetings. The first day of college involves deciding who gets which side of the room, what bedtimes to set among other items to discuss for new roommates. These roommate decisions must be determined within the first days of knowing each other all while trying to figure out class schedules, meet new people and getting over homesickness. Kayra said sometimes roommates can make or break a college experience.
"They make 100 percent difference because you kind of take on their personality," Kayra said. "You're around each other all the time. If they go out all the time, you're more likely to go out and not get as good of grades."
It's up to individuals to decide to choose their roommate or to look them up on Facebook before living together. Do you want to know if your roommate is creepily obsessed with Star Wars action figures before or wait to find out the first day when they unload a suitcase full of Wookies, Luke Skywalkers and Jar Jar Binks, and have a great story to tell?