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More how-to guides for life
Thursday, August 19, 2004
How to's for life A monthly guide
What students should bring — and what they should leave at home

By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett,
Special to The Seattle Times

You passed chemistry, surprised yourself on the SATs, did the exuberant Yesss-I-got-in! dance when your acceptance letter arrived. Now the real challenge lies ahead: dorm living.

Your entire life must fit in a space slightly larger than the average SUV interior. Read on, intrepid dormie, these tips will help:

Acquaint yourself with the official no-no's. Folks who run college and university housing are a realistic bunch. They tend to get in a twist only over infractions that cause big fires, ceiling cave-ins or congressional inquiries.

"We have the usual list of things you should not bring, like weapons, halogen lights and pets," said Jed Schwendiman, associate director of housing for Whitman College in Walla Walla. Goldfish are fine, however. "We like to say that if it can hold its breath underwater for 20 minutes, it's acceptable," said Schwendiman.

A weapons ban makes sense, but halogen lights? Turns out those mod-looking lamps are fire hazards. One of the better bring/don't-bring lists is Seattle University's version (, which spells out various kitchen appliances, like toaster ovens and immersion heaters, as well as oil lamps and ammunition.

The ban on appliances is a matter of electrical wiring, and the lack thereof. Unless a dorm is brand new or has been rewired very recently, it is set up for students who had one or two appliances at most.

"We get a lot of first-year students asking if they can bring a microwave, and the answer is 'no,' but you can rent or buy a micro-fridge," said Bob Tattershall, director of Housing and Conference Services at Washington State University in Pullman.

These little hybrids shut off the fridge when the micro is in use, which cuts down on the power drain. Otherwise, warns Tattershall: "In most college buildings, you've got several rooms on one breaker, so you have your refrigerator, computer, TV, stereo and hairdryer going, then you turn on the microwave and wham! It pops the breaker and the person next door loses the paper they're writing on their computer."

Listen to veterans: "I will definitely take a lot less when I go back this fall," said Lindsey Dunn, a 19-year-old heading for her sophomore year at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I would be just fine with 70 percent less stuff. Really."

Dunn says she arrived at her first-year dorm staggering under the weight of most of her clothes, most of which wouldn't fit into the tiny closet. "I'm from Florida; I didn't know what to expect, so I brought too large a variety."

Those tempting desk doo-dads went next. "Too many hole punchers, staplers, little pencil holders you really don't need 'em," said Dunn. And all those decorations from home?

"Well, first you think it's kind of fun to start over with a clean slate, you've got this new room you can play with. But pretty soon you're just hanging up disposable cutouts and computer printouts you can rip down and throw away. And those framed pictures on shelves get replaced by books pretty fast."

Talk to your roommate now: College-housing folks have a sure-fire strategy for minimizing clutter: "One of the most important things is to talk to your roommate over the summer," said WSU's Tattershall. (Most schools send first-year students contact info by midsummer.) "We want students to plan a little and not overwhelm themselves with duplicate gear."

Along with aesthetic issues and music preferences it's wise to figure out who brings phones, stereos, TVs and big furnishings ahead of time.

Annie Cataldo of Northboro, Mass., an incoming first-year student at Columbia College in New York City, figures she'll bring a small personal stereo for a music course. A cellphone? "Probably, but not for sure." DVD or TV? "No, maybe my roommate will bring one. Or we'll just use one in the common room."

Clothes are trickier. Cataldo's been looking through her wardrobe and realizing "a lot of the clothes I have are kind of trendy." Now, she says, more basic duds will be better for college. "Probably all my sweatshirts and jeans."

Two things she's taking, no matter how small the room: "The quilt my grandmother is making in Columbia school colors, and a collage I made of pictures of my friends. I'll need one high-school reminder."

Packing 101

Gotta have: Sheets. (When in doubt, get extra-long twin sheets. Many dorms have longer mattresses.)

Towels. Shower sandals. Laundry bag. Scissors. Safety pins. Umbrella. Package of poster-hanging goop that looks like chewed gum. A hard-sided case for your glasses. (Yes, someone WILL step on them within the first month of school.) Small battery-operated alarm clock. Hangers. Desk lamp. Power strip for computer gear. (And, no, just because it has seven outlets doesn't mean you should plug seven things into it.) A roll of quarters for first week's laundry.

Basic toiletries and something to lug them in. (As Whitman College's Schwendiman likes to tell students: "Remember, we have stores here." You do not have to bring enough toothpaste for the entire year.) One beloved item that conjures up home in a warm and fuzzy way. (No heirlooms.)

Consider: Locking cable for laptops. Small box that locks. Laundry basket (takes up more room than laundry bag, but worth it if you want to keep clothes folded on the way back from washers). A small throw rug. A Frisbee.

Forget it: Lots of extra sheets and towels. The paper shredder. No need to bring more than one coffee mug; others will mysteriously migrate to your room. Check out campus facilities before you haul a big desktop system and a lot of accessories to school. Ditto on TV/VCR. And, believe it or not, you probably do not really need your high-school yearbooks.


"Once Upon a Campus: Tantalizing Truths about College from People Who've Already Messed Up" by Trent Anderson, Seppy Basili, et al (Kaplan, 2003). A humorous take on higher ed with sound advice.

"Getting Ready for College" By Polly Berent (Random House, 2003). Good tips for small things to make dorm life easier.

"The Real Freshman Handbook: A Totally Honest Guide to Life on Campus" by Jennifer Hanson (Mariner Books, 2002). This is a tempting gift book for your bound-for-college kid or friend. Just beware of the things-to-take-list, which will result in serious room overload. A rack for drying your hand-washed clothes? Please. If you're an 18-year-old regularly hand-washing clothes and drying them on a rack, you have no need to read this article. Stop immediately.

"College Clues for the Clueless" of the multi-authored "Clues" series. (Promise Press, 1999). An unusual book among its sister volumes on surviving college life, this guide mixes its practical advice with Christian scripture. The biblical allusions are sometimes a stretch in their context, but the overall theme will appeal to many readers who find the more secular guides lacking.

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