During the first days of college, decorating their dorm room is every student’s focus, and for the most part, rooms won’t require anything more complicated than accessorizing. “Overall, the problems students deal with—say, noise or a lack of space—are small compared to the value you get from being part of the residence life experience,” says Harlan Cohen, founder of the website Best First Year in College and author of The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College. “Dorm problems tend to be very manageable.”
But sometimes, something more serious than tight living quarters or rowdy roommates can crop up, and students will need to contact university personnel. These issues range from bedbug infestations to mold, mice, or cockroaches. Here’s what students and parents need to do when faced with dorm room maintenance issues.
Tell your resident advisor promptly
Campus protocols vary from college to college. If there’s an issue with a dorm, some schools require students to fill out an online submission form that goes to facilities staff, while others advise you to alert your RA—or both. “The RA will more than likely explain to students during a first-floor meeting exactly how maintenance requests are handled,” says Terri Scanlon, Managing Director of Reslife.net, a site that provides information to university housing and residence life professionals. Whatever system is in place, students should start with their RA if they’re not sure how to proceed.
It’s important to report promptly so the school can solve the issue—particularly if it’s a problem like bedbugs that can spread to other rooms if left unchecked, or mold, which poses a health hazard to mold-sensitive people. If the problem isn’t resolved the first time it’s treated, students will need to follow up with another report. “Sometimes there may be a lag in resolving issues, and in that instance, students just need to be doing appropriate follow-up,” Scanlon says. “For reporting maintenance, some schools will have manual systems, and some will have online systems.”
At Texas Tech University, housing staff is on hand during move-in weekend to handle issues that crop up in the moment, says Sean Duggan, managing director of the University’s student housing. “We try to turn a negative experience positive through staff presence and willingness to do whatever we need to do to solve the problem,” Duggan says. The University also provides abundant student education for room issues that might crop up later.
Related: A Handy Guide to Surviving Dorm Life
Find a confidante if you’re uncomfortable reporting
If reaching out to the RA isn’t comfortable for whatever reason, “students need to reach out to the safest and easiest person around them, so that person can help them articulate what it is they need done,” Cohen says. They can find an RA on another floor or another residential resource. Most residence halls have a residence hall association, and there’s always a senator who represents that particular hall, Cohen says.
Don’t ask your parents to handle it for you
Most students don’t have trouble reporting an issue, Duggan says. But often they call their parents to handle it rather than their RA or facilities staff. His staff is accustomed to speaking with parents, but they would rather talk to the student because the process moves faster when parents get out of the middle. Advocating for yourself can feel uncomfortable, but college experts say taking the lead is an important life skill. “Life can be uncomfortable and challenging,” Cohen says. “But unless you practice ‘uncomfortable’ and engage with people, you’re never going to get good at it.”
When to involve parent help
However, if students aren’t successful in getting a problem resolved, it might be time for a parent to call. Experts prefer parents encourage from behind the scenes to help students start managing their own issues, but if a parent feels like an issue isn’t being addressed, it’s appropriate to follow up on health or safety situations. For example, if a student has allergies or asthma, or lives with a roommate who has an emotional support animal and the student is allergic, “these are situations where the student can advocate but can also include the parent if the situation isn’t being resolved fast enough,” Cohen says. Also, if a student is unable to self-advocate, whether due to learning differences, social anxiety, or documented medical issues, helping the student is appropriate, he says.
What to do about common issues
Unfortunately, many dorm buildings are dated and may be prone to issues that threaten a healthy living environment. Here are a few problems students may encounter and what to do about them.
These critters are a big deal and need to be reported immediately so maintenance staff can inspect and treat them if necessary. Bedbugs don’t introduce disease like mosquitos can, but they’re a headache to get rid of and will multiply if left unreported. They aren’t a sign of poor hygiene; rather, they hitchhike in on luggage or furniture and may have been introduced into the room before you arrived.
Not all students react to bedbug bites, Duggan says, so the problem is students might not even realize they have them because bedbugs hide during the day. “At move-in, we have posters up about bedbugs and what to look for, and information on our website,” Duggan says. “We’re not afraid to talk to students because we need their help. Even if a bug turns out not to be a bedbug, we thank them profusely for calling because we don’t want bedbugs in the building.”
Heat is the most effective bedbug treatment, and many institutions have a system to heat entire rooms by raising the room temperature to 130 degrees. Students need to do their part by following institutional protocols, such as washing and drying all their bedding and clothing on hot cycles. Housing departments may help with laundry costs or might even handle it for the student. Students will also need to be vigilant about not introducing bedbugs when they travel home.
Also a big deal, mold can become a health issue for people sensitive to it, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, leading to throat irritation, coughing, wheezing, asthma, and allergies. If your room has signs of mold, report it to your college’s housing staff. This fall, the University of Maryland had to temporarily relocate students to hotels to treat the building they were living in.
Mice and cockroaches can be a problem too, especially if students don’t keep their room tidy and don’t put food away in sealed containers or the fridge. Duggan says various causes can send mice indoors. “Construction on campus might kick up mice. In Texas, we’ve had droughts, and they can drive critters in from the country to the city looking for a home,” he says. “We absolutely encourage students to tell us.”
At the beginning of the year, students will fill out a room inventory form to verify that furniture and other room elements are in good condition. Be sure to complete this process, because you will be held accountable at the end of the year and could be charged a fee for poor conditions. “After the initial room inventory, staff aren’t going to be walking around and asking students if there’s anything in their room that needs to be repaired,” Scanlon says. “The onus of that is on the student living in the space.”
Colleges and universities want students to have a wonderful experience living in the residence halls. They are ready to solve housing issues that arise, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Who doesn't want a college with a happy and healthy environment? Check out these student recommendations for Colleges and Universities With the Cleanest Campuses.