Close encounters of the college dorm kind

There’s a little piece of me that’s still at college: it’s called the last few thousand I owe on my student loans. Every month the bill arrives in the mail and reminds me not to forget my alma mater. Sometimes it arrives on the same day I get a donation request that reminds me not to forget my alma mater.

And yet, even with these ever-present reminders, college feels like a million years ago. Did I really used to sleep till 11 a.m. on Saturdays?

Did I really use my time between classes to watch marathon sessions of “The Simpsons”?

Did I really ride my bike to Walmart because I had no car?

Things sure change, especially when you throw a job, husband and kids into the mix. It’s no wonder I’m having trouble remembering what life was like then.

This week I got to relive college life, just for an hour or so, when I visited my niece in her first week at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. And for all the changes that have happened in the world in the last 17 years, college life in some ways is very much the same — especially dorm life.

Shelby’s dorm room is the size of a matchbox. She shares her pint-sized quarters with one other adult-sized girl. They sleep inches away from the ceiling in loft beds. If either of them sits up in bed suddenly in the middle of the night, I’m quite sure she will have a concussion.

They each have a desk and a chair. They share one dresser and one closet. They have a mini refrigerator. There is one small window. And between all these items, there is a small bit of exposed carpet.

The beautiful thing is, my niece thinks this diminutive space is more than large enough for the two of them.

“Aren’t the rooms big?!” she asked incredulously while giving me the grand tour.

Sure, big the way store dressing rooms are big, or coat closets are big, or jail cells are big. Big enough to get the job done, and not an inch to spare.

But I didn’t tell her that.

“Yeah, it’s a good size,” I said.

Good enough, anyway.

I had forgotten I spent two years of my life in a room that size, sleeping on the top of a bunkbed. And I didn’t mind it a bit.

As I recall, we felt quite pleased with ourselves for bunking our beds to make room for a small love seat. We didn’t even have a “real” closet like Shelby’s; we had slender, leaveyour- clothes-at-home wardrobes.

Like Shelby, I caddied my shampoo and soap and toothbrush to the bathroom down the hall each morning and evening. And if I sat up suddenly in bed, the ceiling reminded me it was still there.

But for myself and for Shelby, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s good to start out small. It’s humbling.

And besides, those small rooms keep you out and about, seeing people and doing stuff. No sense in spending your limited time in college cooped up in a tiny room. Sleep and study there, and then get out and make some friends and see the rest of the world.

It’s a precious, short time in your life that you are responsible for and answer to no one but yourself. No one else will tell you to do your homework, go to bed at a decent time, eat a well-rounded meal or wash those sheets. There aren’t children to care for — brothers or sisters or your own little tikes. There isn’t a lawn to mow, a meal to cook or a bathroom to clean.

What there is, is this: a brain to develop, skills to expand and friends to make. There is maturity to gain, character to build and a heart to both protect and share. I can think of no better place to complete tasks of that magnitude than a pint-sized, pink-and-orange-themed dorm room. And sleeping in a helmet is probably not such a bad idea, either.

Amy Palser

Amy Palser writes personal stories readers can relate to: tales of family and friends, of childhood and rites of passage, of fantastic people and ordinary things. Her column appears each Saturday. She is the Tribune's managing editor.

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