For many universities this fall, students will be stepping onto campus for the first time after a lengthy quarantine for in-person instruction. Among them are student commuters. While most students may relish the opportunity to live on campus and socialize with peers, others choose to commute from home for financial or personal reasons. On top of academics and other work obligations, this subset of students faces a set of challenges unique from their on-campus peers, which are not necessarily prioritized by universities.
For junior criminal justice and communications major Gabriella Sanjur, commuting was a smart financial decision given the cost of room and board. However, the daily 40-minute, one- way drive from her home to the University of Maryland (UMD) has also taken a toll on her ability to participate in campus life and form connections.
“The first semester of freshman year, I only had the friends I had from high school,” Sanjur said, “but in terms of making my own personal connections, I only made friends through my classes and only a few of them I still talk to to this day.”
Having commuted to class all three years, Sanjur shares a car with both her brother and mother and must coordinate around both of their schedules when planning classes, her part-time job, and extracurriculars. With many organizations hosting meetings in the late afternoon and night, it can feel like an impossible feat to have time to do homework, get adequate rest, and be involved with school activities. On most days, Sanjur will wake up before 6 A.M. to get ready for her morning classes.
“I definitely have my limitations, I can’t do too much – I don’t really feel like I’m 100% immersed in campus life. I’m just there to go to school,” she expressed. “I feel like a stranger on campus sometimes.”
Over quarantine, the lack of face-to-face interaction in class, a major avenue of socializing for Sanjur, further emphasized feelings of isolation and lack of inclusivity which affected her mental health, despite increasing convenience from cut travel times.
“I felt like I was in solitary confinement; it was hard to be very distant from everybody. I cried about that,” Sanjur said. “The worst thing is that I feel like people were so closed off in Zoom classes. People weren’t actually willing to get to know you; they closed their cameras and muted themselves.”
Even for local students, transportation can be a major stressor. Despite living only 10 minutes away from campus, using the shuttle bus system can still take sophomore education major Joy Kim up to an hour to get to her classes. At times, the number of buses the university provides doesn’t account for the rush of classes at peak hours.
“In the morning, all the shuttles are very packed, so they leave people behind. The shuttles were so full the first day I had to walk to class, and that was really stressful,” Kim said.
Additionally, Kim worries that her professors won’t always take traffic into account for her occasional tardiness. “I was worried my professor just thought I was disrespectful because it’s such a small class,” she mentioned.
Due to the difficulty in coordinating schedules, Kim has felt a divide between students living on campus and commuter students. While Kim was initially assigned to a living-learning program, an initiative where students who live in the same set of dorms will participate in a shared program and classes, she felt isolated participating in the program as a commuter. Kim eventually ended up quitting her living-learning program and found that independently seeking out friendships with her fellow education majors, many of whom also commute, was much easier and fulfilling.
While both Sanjur and Kim acknowledge that there’s a limit to what the university can do to integrate the commuter and on-campus communities, there are a number of ways it can begin to close the gap.
Many of the university’s other initiatives meant to help commuter students connect can feel like a barrier more than community-building. Gabriela’s brother, John Sanjur, a new freshman also at UMD, faces an additional hurdle due to being part of Freshman Connection, a university program where spring admits can take separate classes in the late afternoon and night to keep up with credits. This creates a double barrier where commuting freshmen are not only separated from most of their fall-admitted peers, but also from club events, which are more likely to happen during their late class times.
“Most of the people in Freshman Connection understand that clubs aren’t the way to go this semester because of class,” he stated. “I have met people in class, but you can’t really hang out [after] since it’s late.”
Despite the stress commuting can bring, students can find resilience in their families. While not all students have safe home lives, Kim notes that her family has served as a source of support through quarantine and in the transition to college.
“I always had a really great relationship with my parents,” she said. “Ever since I was younger, like in high school, I never even considered dorming or going out of state.” Other benefits include home-cooked meals and the ability to continue to stay deeply involved with her local church community.
An additional benefit to commuting is building valuable time-management skills and independence. Since commutes can take up to two hours round-trip, commuter students must plan their schedules carefully and prioritize to ensure there’s enough time to fit everything in a day with assignments and jobs.
“You have to be goal-oriented,” Sanjur said. “I feel like I’m connected to the real-world by being a commuter because I’m a part-time worker.”
While both Sanjur and Kim acknowledge that there’s a limit to what the university can do to integrate the commuter and on-campus communities, there are a number of ways it can begin to close the gap. Investing in more transportation and resources targeted for commuter students can immensely help reduce stress. Keeping a hybrid model of online/in-person for some classes may help alleviate transportation delays in the morning, and ensuring that enough buses are available for students could aid in schedule-planning.
“All the time we’re investing in school and traveling, we could be investing in life,” Sanjujr said. “It would help if the university would help us facilitate life.”
Creating mentorship programs, introducing a broader variety of cohort activities, or offering student lockers and dedicated spaces on campus where commuter students could store belongings and rest in between classes can all help build community. Increasing community bonding between commuter students can also be integral in helping students feel less isolated from each other and the campus community.