This post is a continuation of my “College Roommate Roulette” series. Read Part 1 here: https://michaelcao23.medium.com/college-roommate-roulette-part-1-6354a8251fba
The summer after my freshman year, I received an offer from a professor in the College of IST to participate in an REU (Research Experience for Undergrads) pertaining to detecting fake news. Since I was still interested in graduate school at the time, I took the REU instead of applying for internships and enrolled myself in two classes: IST 402 (Emerging Technologies) and CMPSC 221 (Object Oriented Programming With Web Based Applications). I had switched from Computer Science to IST (Information Sciences and Technology) Design and Development at the beginning of the spring because of the sheer rigor of the CS program, so I thought it would be a good chance to catch back up to where I should be, class-wise.
Since I was staying on campus over the summer, I of course needed somewhere to live. Since I wasn’t particularly willing to cough up the premium to live on campus, I began canvassing for options off campus. In State College (where Penn State is), landlords typically run leases from August to the end of July, meaning that students who go home over summer break in May need to find people to sublease from them from mid May to the end of July, or pay rent for an empty apartment. This along with the fact that only a fraction of students stayed behind meant I had quite a few options to choose from, at a fraction of the price I would usually pay.
I ended up making a deal with a rising senior I knew, Jackie, to sublease her studio apartment off campus for a discount in exchange for keeping it maintained well. It was nothing fancy at all; a small front room which I used as a work space along with a kitchen which led to a bedroom and bathroom. A tiny apartment with no roommates — it seemed like a dream. Even better, the complex she lived in was usually reserved for grad students and professionals, which meant it was one of the quietest places you could live off campus. I couldn’t wait to live by myself and be able to do anything for an entire summer.
It ended up being really fun, but also really lonely because (surprise surprise) I had almost no human contact. The research I was doing was by myself, and both my classes were online. This meant that I was either alone in my apartment or alone in the lab for hours at a time, with nobody else to talk to or spend the time with. I didn’t terribly mind, but at the same time, I really missed having others around — it was just not the same without people on campus or others living with me. To get around my loneliness, I’d spend hours on end talking to my online friends, or meeting up with friends still in town, to get away from the apartment and the lab.
Despite the loneliness, my first time living by myself was invigorating and exciting. There was nobody else to make sure I kept my room clean, nobody to make sure I ate regularly, nobody to make sure I was even still sane. Except, of course, my online friends who I kept in touch with — but that’s not quite as effective. Despite the complete lack of accountability involved with me living by myself, I like to think that I at least did decently for myself — I would cook fairly frequently, and eat ramen or mac and cheese otherwise. I’d go on frequent jogs and walks around the area, or go spend time downtown. I’d immerse myself in my hobbies, hoping to further pursue my passions.
And before I knew it, summer was over. Countless nights of existential crises, too many nervous close calls with my bank account, and an overreliance on my distant online friends all came together into a summer I couldn’t forget. I wouldn’t jump at the chance to repeat the experience, but it wasn’t awful at all.
I moved back on campus for my sophomore year. Why, you ask, would I do that when there were much cheaper options off campus? Looking back on it, I have absolutely no idea. Maybe it was because of the convenience of being on campus; maybe it was because it would be easier to have less responsibility; maybe it was because, at one point, I wanted to be an RA. Either way, I chose to live in a North supplemental room again, one virtually identical to my freshman room but in a different residence hall in North.
This time, however, the room would be even emptier; only four people were living in it. There was Zak, a stereotypical jock who ironically did male cheerleading, Evan, a business major who was your typical white dude, and Peter, a computer engineering major who was a cross between athletic and nerdy. We got along really well, but not quite to the same point that I had with my freshman roommates. Sure, we’d shoot the shit in the room and talk about whatever came up; sure, we’d drink together and do dumb shit in the room, but it was just that: it rarely if ever went outside the room, just like the year before.
Just like freshman year, I spent a healthy amount of time outside of the room hanging out with people from classes or clubs; people I would call acquaintances, or friends, but never quite close friends. I was somewhat of a “floater”: I would jump between clubs, social groups, and people like none other, my attention span not allowing me to put in the effort needed to develop a long-lasting relationship with anyone. Add that to my social anxiety that I still had to some extent, and I ended up knowing a lot of people but being close to none. Sure, I had people I could talk to about different things, but my closest friends remained my online ones, the ones I had no issues connecting with, online conversations being dramatically easier than in person ones after all.
The semester went quite the same as my previous ones, only with dramatically increased grades. My freshman year had been a certifiable train wreck, with me nearly failing out of computer science due to the dramatic increase in difficulty that the engineering major demanded. Add that to a mid-year switch to a different major, and it didn’t end well for me (thank goodness for grade forgiveness — which came out at the end of sophomore year!). Sophomore year’s fall semester was more of an opportunity to catch back up and form the professional connections I’d always wanted to, but been too hesitant to, make.
All too soon, the fall was also coming to a close, with Zak moving out of the room after fall came to a close. Having a six person room with three people in it ended up being a blast, and Peter and Evan ended up making plans to live together the next year, while I went ahead with my (misguided) plan to become an RA.
But then COVID-19 hit. While in December it was merely an interesting news item, by March, it ended up being so bad that we, along with almost every university student in the country, got sent home for remote learning. In fact, in our case, we just never ended up returning from spring break: no warning, nothing. All our stuff ended up being stuck in our dorm, with no way to get to it unless we were willing to make a special trip back up to campus — which everyone ended up doing in May, when the school finally resigned itself to the fact that we really weren’t going back.
We ended up parting ways extremely suddenly, but on positive terms, though I almost never talk to them anymore — we co-existed, or, that is to say, I co-existed with them, most of my time being spent outside of the room or intensely focused on my own work, too busy to participate in their shenanigans. I began my journey home, where I’d spend five months reliving my childhood…
Part 3 To Be Continued