Roommates from different backgrounds find common ground

| News Editor

Senior Alex Lin, president of Washington University’s Asian American Association (AAA), was housed in a triple room freshman year, with one white roommate and another roommate of Asian descent.

In his sophomore year, Lin moved to a six-person suite made up of students from four different ethnic backgrounds.

“It was really good because we would go out to all these different kinds of ethnic restaurants, and then we would have lots of discussion about politics and just general views on life,” Lin said. “It was actually a pretty richly rewarding experience.”

Lin is one of many University students to live with students of another race in residential housing. Over the summer, interracial roommates came into prominence in the media after several high-profile studies were published about them.

One study at Ohio State University found that having a roommate of another race can reduce students’ prejudices and broaden their friend circles.

Senior Heather Skanes, last year’s director of Black Anthology, said she agrees with this finding. Skanes, who is black, had a white roommate freshman year and said this led her to meet more white friends than she otherwise would have.

“I feel like at Wash. U., it’s really tempting to just be friends with people of your own culture,” Skanes said. “The fact that I had a roommate who was white led me to meet white friends that I otherwise wouldn’t have met.”

Skanes said her freshman roommate also connected with Skanes’ black friends, so the Ohio State study’s findings can go both ways.

The same study at Ohio State also found that black freshmen with high standardized test scores who room with white students earn better grades, even if their white roommates’ test scores are low. This was not true of white students or black students with low test scores. The study’s authors suggested that this effect might occur because having a white roommate could help black students adjust to studying at universities made up mostly of white students.

Skanes said her grades do correspond with these findings—she earned her highest GPA in her first semester freshman year—but that she does not feel her freshman roommate was a factor in her studying.

Skanes is a pre-med student, and her freshman roommate was in the art school. Skanes said she studied more when she lived in an all-black suite, mostly because she had a roommate at that time who would go to the library with her.

“I feel like I definitely did my best studying when I roomed with three black girls,” Skanes said. “It’s more about the person [you live with].”

Not all the findings on interracial roommates were positive. Another study at Indiana University found that three times as many randomly assigned interracial roommates had broken up by the end of their first semester, as compared to a control group of white roommates.

According to this study, white students’ prior negative attitudes about race were successful indicators of these breakups.

Jill Stratton, associate dean of students in the Office of Residential Life (ResLife), said that in her 17 years of working at the University, she can recall a few incidents of roommates separating due to racial problems. But she said such occurrences have tapered off in recent years.

“In the last five years, I’ve not been aware of a specific incident that dealt with roommates moving out or changing roommates because of racial problems,” Stratton said.

Stratton cites the University’s commitment to diversity and the visibility of this to prospective students as a reason the University experiences fewer racial problems in housing than other universities.
As for interracial roommates who stay together, Associate Director of Residential Life Josh Walehwa said these students should “take full advantage” of their experiences.

Walehwa, who advises the diversity committee in ResLife, said he feels that students stand to benefit from having their pre-existing attitudes about race challenged by their roommates.
“I believe that we benefit from people who might have different ideologies, backgrounds, beliefs,” Walehwa said. “That’s what college really is all about.”

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