9 Things I learned living 1 week in a college dorm at age 35

Last week I was the guest-in-residence at the University of Illinois’ Allen Hall. In other words, I lived in a dorm.

The last time I moved into a dorm was half my life ago. I turn 36 on Friday, and I was 18 on my last move-in-day. On that day, Mom and Dad moved me into a quad with three other guys. It was cozy, if not awkwardly tight. Our beds nearly touched when we pulled them out of the wall.

That year I played my first drinking game and attended my first frat party. I politely turned down my first joint. I walked in a herd with fellow freshmen because that’s what freshmen did. My dog back home became paralyzed with coon dog paralysis; I don’t think my roommates heard me crying at night. I participated in all night video game tournaments. I went in on orders of breadsticks several times per week. The halls smelled like vomit and urine, and no matter how often I showered or washed my clothes I stunk. While showering it wasn’t rare to have your clothes stolen and you’d have to to walk back to your room either naked or wearing the latest in moldy shower curtain style.

I enjoyed my freshman year, but it was also my worst year of college academically. I’m not sure dorm life is something I would want to repeat, but the University of Illinois gave me the chance to do so.

My typical college visit involves a few class visits, maybe a lunch and/or dinner with students, and one larger talk in an auditorium. I’ll get to know a few students some, but conversations are limited because they usually take place in a line of students waiting to talk to me. I try to be efficiently useful, suggesting books, websites, articles, career paths, and travel destinations as quickly as possible. I try to make the conversations about them while being mindful that others are waiting.

Allen Hall was different. After my lectures we had “tea time” with Kelsey back in my dorm room. I got to know much more about the students. And I got to experience what life is like for a 36-year-old living in a dorm.

Here’s what I learned:

1. I go to bed and get up early

I typically go to bed between 11 and 12, which I thought was kind of late, but the students reported staying up to 2 on a regular basis. I get up between 7 or 8 when I don’t have anywhere to be or kids to get going. I gave a few students some Runa guayusa tea and they reported being up dancing (dancing!) until 3!

2. Inconsequential questions are debated vigorously

One night during tea time we played Chuck Klosterman’s Hyperthetical questions.

Here’s one of the questions:

You meet your soulmate. However, there is a catch: Every three years, someone will break both of your soul mate’s collarbones with a Crescent wrench, and there is only one way you can stop this from happening: You must swallow a pill that will make every song you hear–for the rest of your life–sound as if it’s being performed by the band Alice in Chains. When you hear Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio, it will sound (to your ears) like it’s being played by Alice in Chains. If you see Radiohead live, every one of their tunes will sound like it’s being covered by Alice in Chains. When you hear a commercial jingle on TV, it will sound like Alice in Chains; if you sing to yourself in the shower, your voice will sound like deceased Alice vocalist Layne Staley performing a capella (but it will only sound this way to you).

Would you swallow the pill?

The average post-college adult has too many damned dilemmas with impossible answers already to commit time they could be working, napping, wiping an end of a kid, to such questions.

But to have the time to seriously ponder these inconsequential questions was kind of fun. If you are a college student or smoke weed, I highly recommend the game.

3. Where to sit in a dining hall still stresses me out

I was the new kid and several times I had that new kid moment in which I was holding my food examining the possibilities of where to sit. Hide in the corner? Pick an empty table up front and hope someone would choose to sit with me? Randomly sit with someone new? I did all of the above. Being new to a college dorm and 35-years-old is not too unlike that first day in a foreign country.

4. The dining hall has a no shoes, no pants, no shirts, no service policy, but boxers count as pants

I got staring in disbelief at a dude wearing shirts, flip-flops, and his boxers! I wanted to call his mother. You can read about the awkward experience here.

5. The freshman 15 would now be the freshman 120

Food plans are amazing! You don’t have to buy groceries. You don’t have to cook. You don’t have to do dishes. And there is dessert for every meal! That said, I did put on 5 pounds in 5 days. At that rate by the end of the semester I would weigh nearly 300 pounds.

6. Cell phones make walking to class so much different

“I love you,” the girl said as I passed her.

I turned and looked at her puzzled. She looked at me and gave me a look that said “creep.”

I remember the good old days when cell phone minutes were too precious to waste on casual conversations to and from class and there was no facebook or instagram or smart phones. When we passed someone we didn’t want to make eye contact with, we had to stare at cracks in the ground.

7. I’m decaying

“So, I read that basically after 35 your body starts to breakdown,” EJ said, during tea time.

I mean really when you think about it, the life expectancy during paleolithic times for a man was 35.4 years. I’m on borrowed time.

Still, thanks to CrossFit at The Arsenal, I like my chances against the average student in any feat of fitness.

This reminds me of another of Klosterman’s questions:

You are placed in the unenviable position of having to compete for the right to stay alive.

You will be matched against a person of your own gender in a series of five events – an 800-meter run, a game of Scrabble, a three-round boxing match, a debate over the legalization of late-term abortion (scored and officiated by reputable collegiate judges), and the math portion of the SAT.

In order to survive, you must win at least three of these events (your opponent will be playing for his or her life as well). However, you (kind of) get to pick your opponent: you can either (a) compete against a person selected at random, or (b) you can compete against someone who is exactly like you. If selected at random, the individual could be of any age or skill level – he/she might also be an Academic All-American linebacker from Notre Dame. If you pick “the average human,” he/she will be precisely your age and will have an identical level of education, and the person will be a perfect cross-section of your particular demographic – he/she will be of average height and of average weight, with a standard IQ and the most normative life experience imaginable.

So whom do you select? Or – perhaps more accurately – do you feel that you are better than average version of yourself?

8. The quarter-life crisis is real

Picking a major, deciding what to do after you graduate are tough, tough decisions, and I do not envy the uncertainty in the lives of college students. The quarter-life crisis is real! Do you follow your passions or just get any J-O-B.

9. Elton John who? Jimmy Buffett, the hamburger restaurant guy?

A students mentioned they had a friend named Levon.

“Oh, Levon, Levon like his money. Makes a lot they say…” I said deadpan quoting Elton John’s song Levon to blank stares. “You don’t know Elton John’s song Levon?”

“Who is Elton John?” she said.

She also thought Jimmy Buffett was the guy who owned the restaurants!

Becky Vigus says:

Think I will avoid dorms at my age. It would be culture shock, not sure my system is up to it.

I first went to college and stayed in a dorm in 2003. So I’m about halfway between your experience and theirs. I know who jimmy buffet and Elton John are and I didn’t have a cell phone until 2007. But I was also the kid up dancing at 3am. Our more specifically, we’d drive out to the state forest in the middle of the night where there are three medium sized waterfalls in central Massachusetts. One night we even brought blankets and slept on the rocks at the top in between the waterfalls. It was very cold but so worth it

You should see the movie Boyhood!

Kelsey says:

Chris, that makes me feel a bit better. I haven’t seen Boyhood. That’s another thing…I barely watch movies any longer.

Let your voice be heard!