The first thing I learned in college was that cardboard boxes can be a decorative item.

When I arrived on the steps of the freshman girls’ dorm along with my mother and my father, and my entire material existence stuffed into the back of a my old Accord, I was completely unprepared for life with a long-term roomate. An only child, I’d never actually shared sleeping quarters with anyone for more than the three weeks I spent at summer camp.

Though my “roomie” and I had been placed together by a random “potluck,” we had met earlier that year at a girls’ scholarship program. Besides participating in the program’s state finals together (we both played piano for the talent portion and were one of the top 4 academic finalists), we also both had played varsity high school tennis and we brought brand new laptops to begin our college career. We even coordinated our decor weeks prior to that first day– I brought curtains and a stereo, she brought a fridge. Despite our frighteningly similar extra-curricular attributes, though, we were two very different Alabama girls. For one, she had a steady boyfriend and I did not. She was also immaculate.

I thought I was fairly well-organized (I always meticulously packed my camp foot locker and alphabetized and sorted my books by genre, though the trunk never returned home quite the same way it left and my system always needed extensive maintenance). However, I was unprepared for the space-efficient aesthetic mentality that arrived just as my dad was ordering some poor sophomore guy to crawl under my bed and put it up on cement blocks. I was definitely not prepared for the fruitful results of repeated summer trips to Big Lots, including the aforementioned storage boxes.

They came three to a pack, and were meant to hold important files. For my roommate, however, they contained all the odds-and-ends (hats, sweaters, old yearbooks) that I was happy just to stick on top of the armoire. She had a place for everything. If it didn’t fit one of the normal categories like in the closet, the bureau, or under the bed, then it went in the boxes. These were not ordinary cardboard boxes, either–oh no. Their practical purpose was concealed beneath a blue and white toile pattern (long before toile was the fashionistas’ rage). They had lids! And handles! In comparison, my plastic laundry basket and mis-matched shoe boxes seemed tacky, obtrusive, and mundane.

My roommate’s obsessive attention to streamlined household appearances versus my unique flair for personalized “artistic clutter,” suggest only some of the conflicts that would arise during that first year away from my parents’ home. However, looking back I know now that learning to deal with those conflicts (or realizing that I handled some things really badly) has prepared me for my life during the rest of college and beyond. I recall lessons I learned about trust, honesty, and respect that I am still enacting through my marriage.

Most of all, I’ve come to believe that college is a type of boot camp for forming authentic relationships. I can see now that my roommate’s influence on my relational life has been substantial. Because of her, there will be absolutely NO baby-talk, ever, between me and my husband, especially not in public or over the phone while someone else is in the room, but also because of her, my relationship with my mom has improved–I call more often than every fortnight now– and I’ve learned that girl friends are the best counselors in the world. I’d like to tell her “thank you.”

The telling sign that I’ve taken her positive examples to heart? My next trip to the store involves buying some of the previously despised clutter-controlling and aesthetically pleasing cardboard boxes. In blue.