Dear Grad School Diary,
I think we’ve established that relocating to a new place where you don’t know anyone for school is hard, even if your destination is a sunny paradise by the sea. Choosing to live in graduate housing (if available and affordable) for the first year or two is a good way to build social connections. I’ve had a lot of different roommate experiences in my boarding school and undergraduate years. I’ve had international roommates, klepto roommates, roommates who blast Drake, and roommates who stay up all night cackling like an evil mastermind at viral videos like “Owls Hate Simon Cowl” and “Narwhals.” I had the most intimate and intense relationship with my three undergrad roommates; we were paired randomly freshman year and grew to be sisters over four years of living together. I figured I’d seen everything roommate-related under the sun at this point.
I was still nervous about getting new roommates in grad school, but that’s just the kind of person I am so I chalked the anxiety up as the typical, irrational kind. I told myself that my new roommates and I would be fast friends, or at least fast amicable acquaintances. Always the overeager planner, I reached out to my roommates ahead of time via Facebook, introducing myself and letting them know when I was moving in and that I was excited to meet them. I received no reply except for that dreaded message: Seen at 7:00pm. It was a few days before two out of three roommates answered back with a simple ‘Hi’ and their planned move-in date. My anxiety went into overdrive as I contemplated the idea of moving to California to live with three complete strangers. Things didn’t get much better from there.
When I arrived at my new apartment at UCSB, two of my roommates were there. I yelled a cheerful hello as I lugged my bags through the door. I think they may have mumbled hi back but it easily could have been my imagination. Once my stuff was put away, I came out into the living room to meet them. They didn’t even look up. I had to forcefully walk up to them, stick my hand out, and introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Kaitlyn! I’m looking forward to living with you.” There was an awkward pause, then I’d get a handshake and a name. “Stephanie.” “Jessica.” That was it. My roommates didn’t seem interested in getting to know me or forging a friendship. My third roommate, Melissa, had technically been the first to move in but inexplicably was never in the apartment. I saw a long and silent year of living beside these women stretch out before me, and I felt so alone.
I can’t tell you how difficult the first few days of living in my new apartment were for me. I’m an introvert at heart; I always feel an invisible barrier between myself and strangers, and it takes a lot of courage and effort for me to reach out first. I had pushed to make first contact with my new roommates and it wasn’t enough. I wondered if my roommates didn’t like me. Was I being too friendly? Was I not being friendly enough? I kept pushing, trying to break the ice, and I’d like to say it was out of courage but it was more out of desperation, of fear and loneliness. I ran into Jessica in the kitchen, wear she was cooking and streaming Netflix. Here’s how it went.
Me: Hey Jessica.
Me: Watcha watching?
Me: Oh, I’ve never seen that before. I’ve heard its good. How do you like it?
Jessica: …it’s ok.
At that point, I retreated back to my room to escape the intense awkwardness. Was I being annoying? Should I stop trying to force things? I was so frustrated and demoralized. This was the hardest I had ever worked to befriend someone, and it was exhausting. What was the point in trying so hard to put myself out there if no one would meet me half way? And yet, because I had moved in so early there was no one else to meet for the time being. And so, lacking any alternatives, I persisted.
Finally, I arrived at an answer: FOOD. For a couple of days I had quietly observed one of my roommates, Stephanie. She had a car and went out to get fast food for most of her meals. An idea struck me–maybe I could buy my roommates’ affection with food. It’s just like the story of the Little Red Hen: everyone’s your friend when you’re offering free food! I went to the grocery store and picked up brownie and cookie mix, as well as a bottle of wine. They sat in my closet for a few days as I wasn’t sure how to approach my roommate about eating with me. I thought about it and thought about it, but I just couldn’t muster up the nerve to knock on her door and ask if she liked brownies. I was tired of rejection.
But you could say that God was looking out for me or that I finally caught a break that weekend. My first HelloFresh subscription box arrived as Stephanie was heading out with her bike. I seized the moment to ask her to eat with me that night, mentioning that the HelloFresh meals were technically planned for two people. Stephanie agreed, and I had her pick from the three meals I had ordered the one that suited her tastes best. She chose panko-crusted chicken with roasted potatoes. From there, the opportunity snowballed as I started to prepare dinner and Stephanie offered to help cook. We got to talking as she diced the potatoes and I breaded the chicken, and I discovered that she was in the same department as me. Stephanie studies Japanese media and the idol music industry, and we exchanged our favorite anime and K-pop groups. Jessica emerged from her room, possibly lured out by the novel sound of conversation or the smell of baking brownies, and joined in. Finally–finally–I’d broken the ice.
The apartment became so much warmer and brighter after that Saturday night. That one night gave me the confidence that I needed to keep putting myself out there. Little by little, my growing encounters with my roommates chipped away at the distance between us. I came to find out that Jessica had been living alone for the past three years after having a terrible roommate experience in her freshman year of undergrad, so she was unused to having other people around. Melissa finally turned up, and I learned that she is studying for her teaching degree, so she had been working as a teaching assistant at a local elementary school during the day.
I realized that, except for Melissa, UCSB was new for all of us. We were all dealing with our own issues and daily routines. We were all worried about meeting new people and building new lives. Overcoming these four-way insecurities took time and effort, but it was all worth it, because if you are able to make just one friend, the world suddenly seems like a friendlier place altogether.
I learned two important things that first, friendless week. You hear them all the time so they seem trivial, but they’re true. First, everything takes time. And second, everyone loves chocolate.