Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Finding Home: College Dorms

After a year on the living room hide-a-bed, I was ready to leave home. What I wasn't ready for was a tight dorm room with three other girls and a bathroom down the hall. Despite coming from a large family, life on fifteen acres of undeveloped land allowed for loads of personal space. I felt simultaneously suffocated and lost in my first dorm room on an upper floor of a tall, concrete block building. And let's admit it, I was painfully awkward. Making friends was terror. I wanted escape. I needed space and quiet. It was 1972. Despite overcrowding, freshmen were required to live on campus. Still, by the end of my first quarter I was searching for alternatives.

There were two other dorm buildings on campus at my small Jesuit university. The first the was male equivalent of my dorm; the second housed an odd assortment including an English language school (both classrooms and dorms), deaf students attending a neighboring community college, and upper class university students - male only. I wanted one of those rooms.

I climbed the ladder of university authority getting increasingly abrupt refusals. That's when I made an appointment with the director of the English language school who was more than happy to rent me a room. I suppose he figured having a native speaker living amongst his international students could be good for marketing. I moved into a private room mid-freshman year.

My mistake was in telling any of my classmates where I lived. Somehow word reached a campus reporter, and the next thing I knew I was back in the director's office. The university had threatened to terminate the language school lease if they continued to rent to me. Fortunately, the director saw the absurdity of keeping empty dorms at an overcrowded urban university, and he found the perfect solution: he offered me a job. I lived rent-free as a Resident Assistant for the remainder of my two year stint at that university.

My strongest memory? The screams. I remember a week of dreadful, bloodcurdling screams. It was before my official role as Resident Assistant had begun. I was still an anonymous American co-ed living in a single room on a floor of tiny dorm rooms full of international students from around the world. Some came for a few months of English before extended travels around the United States. Others had plans to enter American universities. And still others were part of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees, those with sufficient funds or connections to the United States military, who managed to escape before the fall of Saigon in 1975. 

She was a young Vietnamese woman, so petite at first glance I thought she was a child. Only after years of working with refugees and immigrants did I comprehend the horror behind those endless nights of screaming and crying. I offered nothing more than a passing smile in the long hallway. Then, she disappeared.

The year and a half I spent in that world of international students and ESL instruction opened my eyes to a new reality. I continued attending classes but no longer worried about fitting into the private Catholic university scene that felt more alien to me than the worlds of my new floor-mates. But beyond the dorm and the insular campus, the Vietnam War continued to rage, the country was on fire, and I was ready to move on.

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To read the prior posts in this series, go to the posts listing in the left side bar. If no longer visible, just click on "March."

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