Making the perfect first-year roommate match

housing coordinators
Sophomore Cesar Arevalo and senior Devin Norder match roommates for first-year students as Stanford’s undergraduate housing coordinators.

For Stanford’s first-year students, meeting their new roommates is one of the highlights and most anticipated moments of New Student Orientation.

Unlike many peer colleges and universities, Stanford doesn’t share with first-year students who their new roommates will be in advance of their first day on campus at New Student Orientation (NSO), which this year is Sept. 19.

That long-standing tradition admittedly causes some confusion, given the inevitable arrival of two microwaves, two refrigerators and two differently colored floor rugs. But the practice has the advantage of allowing students to meet one another with no preconceived notions and on an equal footing. That becomes especially important when so much information is available online.

Similar, but different
If senior Devin Norder and sophomore Cesar Arevalo have done their jobs well as undergraduate housing coordinators, the new roommates this year will discover that they have just enough in common to be compatible, but with just enough differences to learn from one another.

“It’s a job Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises has historically entrusted to students because students have experienced residential life, understand the current Stanford culture, and know how to interpret student information regarding such items as music preferences,” said Sue Nunan, director of housing assignments for R&DE. The Housing Assignments team works closely with the coordinators during the assignment process.

Norder and Arevalo have spent the summer learning everything they can about Stanford’s more than 1,700 first-year students so they can make successful roommate matches. It’s Norder’s second year as an undergraduate housing coordinator and Arevalo’s first. The job comes with a two-year obligation to ensure overlap and continuity. Next summer, Arevalo will teach the ropes to another new undergraduate housing coordinator.

Shortly before NSO begins, the two will have made their last match and can breathe a sigh of relief. The job is challenging – but in a way that allows them to make a difference in the lives of other Stanford students.

“It’s interesting and definitely fulfilling,” said Norder, a management science and engineering major from Sarasota, Florida, who also trains during the summer as a member of the rowing team. “It’s nice to feel like you might have made freshmen’s Stanford experiences better, but it can also be stressful.”

For Arevalo, a sophomore from Baldwin Park, California, the job gives him the chance to assign new students as good a roommate as he had his first year. But like Norder, he finds it daunting to know he can shape someone’s first year with just a simple Excel spreadsheet click.

Rumors abound
Norder and Arevalo know that, inevitably, all their paired roommates will try to guess why they were matched. Rumors abound, many of which Norder and Arevalo find pretty funny. For instance, there’s the classic Stanford urban myth about the “biblical” quadrangle in Roble Hall with four men with names like John, James, Jacob and Joshua. Other roommates look for clues in height comparisons, name similarities or geographic locations.

“I heard someone once say we make the roommate matches and then just randomly switch people around for fun,” Norder said.

None of the theories is true, they say. In fact, nothing matters more than a careful consideration of such attributes as neatness, sleeping habits and music tastes.

The matching process starts after first-year students return the Approaching Stanford forms in which they prioritize residence preferences and describe their preferred living situations. Norder and Arevalo started by printing out and reading those forms – some 7,000 pieces of paper in all.

Then they grouped students who chose to live in special programs like Italic in Burbank or Structured Liberal Education in Florence Moore. Next comes the “bucket draw,” in which students are grouped by preferred residence types, including four-class dorms, first-year dorms and cultural theme houses. Most incoming students ask for first-year dorms, and Norder and Arevalo have so far been able to assign 75 percent of incoming students to their first choice.

At that point, the two worked to ensure that each residence hall reflects the university’s diversity as much as possible. In doing so, they also separated students from the same high schools or those competing in the same sports. By this point, enough filtering has occurred to make the actual roommate assignments doable. It’s no longer about 1,700 students, but rather, for instance, the 99 students in Larkin Hall.

Reading between the lines
Much of their job at that point is reading between the lines to truly understand each student.

“When you read something like ‘I’m messy but I want a clean room,’ you have to think seriously about what the student is really saying,” Arevalo said. “When I was a freshman, I wrote, ‘I’m cool with anyone.’ I gave them nothing to work with. But they got me. I had an incredible match my freshman year.”

“We want everyone to be 100 percent honest,” Norder said, “but that’s hard to do.”

Inevitably, there are complaints that start when students learn to which residence they have been assigned. Arevalo and Norder don’t mind the resulting phone calls, but they prefer to hear from students themselves rather than parents.

Most often, the concern is about being assigned to a four-class dorm rather than a first-year residence. Since both spent their first years in four-class residences – Roble for Norder and Norcliffe for Arevalo – they’re versed in reassuring students about the advantages of the experience.

The two realize that not knowing the identities of their first-year roommates causes anxiety for some incoming students. But after experiencing the tradition themselves from both sides, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I showed up before my roommate,” Arevalo remembered. “I saw his name on the door and immediately looked him up on Facebook. I was desperate to find out anything. I’m glad I couldn’t find him on Facebook because that would have affected my perception of him. Neither of us had preconceived notions when we actually met.”

Norder added, “It’s such a human experience. It takes both students out of their element and makes both vulnerable in a good way.”