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Work & School A freshman’s guide to dorms, decor, and creating your own space

Nov. 8, 2018
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Illustrated by Hannah Kang

There I stood. In the middle of my apartment, 11 PM, out of breath. I had just hurt my back after attempting to lift my bookshelf off the ground so I could move it without disturbing my neighbors. My toes were aching from stubbing them on the foot of my bed. My closet was ajar, my books were scattered across the floor, dust was flying in the air, and my eyes were watering.

I felt defeated.

When you are entering the housing process in college, most schools will provide students a wide variety of options, from living alone in a studio apartment to sleeping in the bottom bunk with three strangers in a quad.

American colleges typically offer a price list of different housing options for each semester, even posting video tours of the residential buildings and rooms on their websites. For students attending universities in the U.S., when you’re deciding on your dorms, it’s best to look around on YouTube videos or even email alumni from your high school who’ve chosen the same school for suggestions and advice.

But for many of us, the housing process is a lottery.

I didn’t know anyone in the Netherlands, and there were very few resources online. My university’s website provided vague descriptions of the housing process, frequently mentioning that housing isn’t guaranteed. The lengthy back-and-forth communication process between the school and I threw me off completely; I didn’t know what to expect. 

When I was picking my first-year housing, the school didn’t allow me to pick what location I wanted. Instead, they gave me price ranges I would be comfortable with and showed me the relevant housing types. As an international student who had no clue what Amsterdam was like, I felt blindsided—I didn’t know where I’d end up.

When I first arrived at my dorm, two hefty suitcases in hand, my dad turned the keys and opened the door to what would be my life for the next twelve months. Awaiting me was an old, stained mattress laid across a metal bed frame, aged, peeling wallpaper, and a view of the ditch adjacent to the building. Needless to say, I panicked. 

Like most things, with time it got better. They cleaned up the ditch in front of the apartment complex, and now I have the pleasure of waking up and seeing ducklings paddle their way along the nearby stream. After seeing my frustration, the housing company offered me a replacement mattress within the hour, sparing me from ever finding out where the stains came from. The aging wallpaper is now out of sight, covered by photos and posters. My dorm is starting to feel more and more like a home, my home.

When decorating your dorm room, focus on functionality. Set aside the urge to recreate all of the outrageous decor ideas you saw on Pinterest, and look for a logical way to style your room.

One common essential item for me and many of my friends is a clothing rack. On top we hang outerwear to grab on the go for chilly morning classes, and on the bottom rack we lay matching shoes. That way, on days when we’re running late for class, it takes minimal effort to get ready.

It’s easy to overpack when it comes to room decor. I started my packing process with a memento-filled suitcase. Initially, I wanted to bring everything that reminded me of home: the hundreds of Polaroid photos I’ve hoarded since middle school, the punk rock band posters that are curling at their edges, and even the movie tickets from my first date. In the end, I settled on just photos of my friends and my family. 

The first night I slept in my dorm, I remember blankly staring at the unfamiliar ceiling, tossing and turning in the discomfort of a new mattress. My fingers clawed into my childhood stuffed animal, craving the familiarity of home.

After my first night, I was determined to make my dorm room feel like my own space. I moved the furniture around, trying to separate my sleeping and working environments more distinctively. This is a common issue when it comes to studio apartments: the lack of separation between one’s resting space and working space loosens the boundaries between the two, and the brain begins associating the bed with work and stress, thus making it harder to fall asleep. I pushed my bed against the window, my desk against the wall, and placed a bookshelf between the two to divide the spaces. By facing my desk against the wall instead of the bed, I was turning away temptations of the warm embrace of my sheets.

Right now, I cherish my tiny studio apartment dearly. After dreadful days at school, I long to return home to my own space.

Even with neighbors and roommates, being on your own can be lonely. I try to make the best of it, though—it’s my first step towards independence, after all. I’m dipping my toes into adulthood, preparing myself for the deep dive in the near future.

Still a freshman,

Wen Hsiao