Creating a sense of place away from home in college dorms

College provides an opportunity to explore style and gain skills

A sense of personal style, and a sense of place, are important features of a room's design.
Bryan Caballero/Courtesy image

Though freshmen have already left for college, it takes some time, and attention, to really settle in. College is the first time young adults have a chance to create their own home, a sense of place that reflects their style. While the process begins by evaluating campuses and finding an overall fit, once students move in, assimilation and comfort can take weeks or months to establish.

Setting up home

Picking out décor and setting a theme may have begun months prior to leaving for school, or it can be done on the fly. Either way, it’s a process.

Doug DeChant, retired, founding principal of Shepherd Resources in Edwards, and his wife hit Target and Bed Bath and Beyond with each of their kids upon arriving at school to collect dorm room essentials.

“(These) would serve them and shape the character of their rooms,” he said. “There weren’t many physical elements from home that traveled to their campuses. But they each took important, smaller mementos or other things from home, such as family photos or a fin from an old surfboard. At least two of them displayed the ‘Vail From Space’ poster, and all of them had their skis.”

“Do something that’s going to bring out your personality and that brings brightness to you. If it’s too vanilla and you don’t take that chance right away, then you probably never will. It’s your chance to make a statement. Be brave with your choices.” — Yvonne Jacobs, Jacobs + Interiors

Others, like Yvonne Jacobs, owner of Jacobs + Interiors in Edwards, and her daughter, Hudson, planned interior design well in advance. Jacobs says girls “go crazy” with their dorm rooms, and one look on Pinterest or TikTok confirms that. Dorm room interior designers are even a thing, particularly in the South.

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Jacobs simplified the somewhat overwhelming process for her daughter by asking: What do you want your dorm room to feel like? They chose items based on that question, as well as the amount of allotted space.

“It started months ago, with the reality of pairing down to the meaningful and functional things,” Jacobs said.

Those two guidelines — feel and space — can act as essential questions not just when students move into dorms, but also after they’ve been there for a couple of weeks or months. It’s never too late to dial in your sense of home, especially if it doesn’t feel quite right after initially setting it up.

Honing in on your sense of home

“For many kids, this is their first venture out on their own, and they are creating their own brand that represents what they believe in and feel comfortable around,” said Kelly Newman, owner of 714 Home in Edwards. “As they develop their living quarters and lifestyles, many times it’s a reflection influenced by their past, which provides a sense of comfort and is accented by their beliefs, wants and desires as they establish their brand, or reflection, of what makes them unique in today’s world.”

Newman doesn’t recommend designing everything at once at move-in, but rather, adding and removing items as needed.

If a dorm feels too empty or sterile, it might be time to simply list must-haves, like bedding, towels and a desk light for studying, and then suss out wants.

Hudson made a Pinterest board to zero in on a vibe, which turned out to be a disco theme. Though Jacobs says it’s worth talking to roommates to see if you can come up with a cohesive theme, it’s fine to do your own thing. Hudson’s two roommates desired blue and gray, but she didn’t want to accentuate that in her area.

“Do something that’s going to bring out your personality and that brings brightness to you,” Jacobs says. “If it’s too vanilla and you don’t take that chance right away, then you probably never will. It’s your chance to make a statement. Be brave with your choices.”

In addition to disco-ball lights, they chose a slip-on headboard, duvet cover, lamp, robe and shower caddy from Pottery Barn and fun graffiti artwork and a lip-shaped pillow from Urban Outfitters.

Locally, shops like 714 Home carry throw pillows, picture frames, rugs, blankets and more.

“We commonly have parents visit the shop with their college student looking for accents for their spaces, and it’s always fun to watch the young adults identify and pick items to make their space special at school,” Newman says.

Of course, visual and tactile aren’t the only senses to consider when decorating a room. Reed diffusers add uplifting aromas. A small, potted plant not only produces oxygen for cleaner air and brings nature into a space, but also it gives young adults something for which to care.

If a dorm room feels too crowded after just weeks of moving in, it might be time to pass on items to mom and dad during their next visit.

“The average dorm is about 200 square feet. Although small, you can make it feel like home,” Newman said.

When deciding what to add and delete, there’s a fine balance between bringing too much of the past into a new future. For example, an entire photo wall of family and old friends might be overkill as students are separating themselves from home to forge their own way, but a few photos of friends, family and pets can go a long way to soothe homesickness. Jacobs made a small photo album for her son when he went to college, which he still values, even after graduating.

“A little bit is good. Pick out a few key pieces, but don’t go overboard,” she said, not only about photos but also bedding and pillows that might end up on the floor instead of neatly made every morning.

A sense of personal style, and a sense of place, are important features of a room’s design.
Bryan Caballero/Courtesy image

How parents can support the process

The key to success involves giving college kids space, while still letting them know you’re there.

“It’s important to let the young adults pick and choose their amenities and accessories that they will be living with versus what their parents might choose for them. This is part of growth into adulthood: Making decisions based on choices dependent upon personal likes and dislikes,” Newman said.

Budgeting also plays a role in decision-making because it builds skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, she says.

“(Encourage) inexpensive things that give them that sense of comfort and home,” Newman says.

Parents weekend — usually scheduled in September or October — is a great time to check in with freshmen to see how settled and connected they feel at their new school, though as DeChant points out, it’s probably more therapeutic for parents than the kids.

Regardless, “it’s a fun time to check in and see how things are working — what you might need to bring or take away,” Jacobs said. “Most times, they’ve brought too much.”

This can be a good time to add organizational containers if makeup and clothing is strewn about. Drawer dividers for underwear and socks and acrylic containers for makeup and other items can foster neat habits.

Of course, communicating as often as kids want to provides a sense of connection and security, as does coming home for Thanksgiving and winter break. Remain flexible if necessary: DeChant’s oldest had planned to stay on campus for Thanksgiving during his freshman year, in an effort to contribute to a sense of independence.

“Yet a few days before, we struggled with his absence for what is a very important family holiday, so on short notice, we paid the most ever for a flight home,” he says, adding that “returning to school after visits and holidays reinforced the idea that school was their home, at least for the short term. Bringing college friends home to ski over spring break connected them with our home, yet also reinforced their college home relationships and camaraderie.”

Letters also go a long way, whether sent or left after a visit. DeChant and his wife wrote a lengthy, personal letter to each of their kids as they said goodbye the first time. The letters described “what they have meant to our family, what to expect and how to navigate life independently,” he says. “The letter emphasized our love for them and our shared excitement for this next big chapter.”

And, of course, everyone loves surprise care packages, particularly when they’re filled with items students can’t get at school, like homemade cookies.

Overall, find ways to support kids without doing things they can do for themselves.

“When they’re leaving home, they want to be brave. It’s a huge deal, so anything you can do to set them up for that transition that feels like it’s a place they want to be helps,” Jacobs said. “You’re setting them up for success. Design helps in that way — you’re bringing that comfort and that sense of home to them.”

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