Challenges for Commuter Students
How to Get a Life as a Commuter
Challenges for Commuter Students
by Don King
Perhaps you’re a single parent and in the past 10 years, you’ve graduated from high school, you’ve changed majors twice and schools three times. Or you might be finishing up your degree after a money crunch forced you to transfer from a neighboring residential campus. Or you’re a newlywed dabbling in coursework long after your degree has been earned. You might even be an 18-year-old, fresh-out-of-high school freshman doing higher education the "traditional way.”
Such is the current life situation of several people who shared about their experiences as commuter students. True to the spirit of Charles Dickens, and reflecting our own Lutheran heritage of living life in the midst of ambiguity, this really is a “best of times/worst of times” kind of offering, a time “very much like our own” for an increasing number (and soon to become a majority) of our American students.
What is this commuter life all about? How can one make it work? Can one more than survive, and really prevail, in these circumstances; really have something special to look back on for one’s college years? To root out some answers to these and other questions, it is helpful to explore the lives of those who have gone before, to find some commonalities and to learn what the pitfalls and hopes are all about. The following contains excerpts from and reflections on such lives.
Some things are universal. Rushing about, trying to make the next deadline, and covering many bases seem to be universal to the commuter setting. The very nature of commuting holds that someone has come from somewhere, and that somewhere is an empty vacuum. Commuters may live with a parent or two, juggle a marriage, try to “have it all” and thereby raise children along with grade point averages, and/or already have a roster of friends in place that they would just as soon keep, and therefore, nurture.
But commuting doesn’t stop there, as most students are commuting to at least one job—full or part-time. And, depending on circumstances, a commuter may lose an hour or two per day simply in the commute. The long drive home may indeed clear one’s head from daily academia, but rush hour in the dead of winter with someone waiting impatiently at the other end of the journey is hardly anyone’s idea of an ideal day.
The system knows of this time crunch; is however, the system has been learning to adapt. Evening and weekend classes are ever increasing. Student groups, ones that survive at least, learn to schedule their activities when interested students are around.
Setting priorities seems to be the key here. A word of grace can be found in the knowledge that we’ll never do it all, so do what’s most important. Karen, a 27-year-old senior, sums it up: “I manage an apartment building part-time, yet my five-year-old son comes first. But it’s a struggle, being on call 24 hours with school, the building and my responsibilities with my son and church. When it gets tough, I do only those things that need to be done and leave the lesser important things for later. This happens a lot.”
Is there nothing so universal to the commuting experience as the parking lot? Across the country, parking seems to be high on everyone’s “least favorite” list. It ranges from perpetually paying to enter parking at the suburban community college to perpetually praying to find parking at the more urban university setting. This does not entice students to appear and reappear on the scene much more than is necessary.
But should one find parking and actually take the time to look around, she/he might find a landscape a world apart from Mount Pleasant Hill Sleep away college! Commuters choices can be urban schools. At Cleveland State University, we have within walking distance Playhouse Square, the second largest theater district in the U.S., our turn-of-the-century shopping mall, the Old Arcade, America’s North Coast near Lake Ede; the stadium and enough restaurants (from low budget to highpriced cuisine) to stop at a different eatery every day during the course of at least one academic year.
Now, is all of this really taken in? That really depends...it depends on one’s idea of city life and what one wants from it. It is possible to spend four-plus years commuting back and forth with the urban landscape seen only as a means to get to where one has to go. Or for very little time and money, one can see the city and the commuter school as one big whole, one large arena for personal (as well as academic) growth.
Let’s put it right out in the open: If Harvard had called with that free tuition grant, many of us would not find ourselves in the commuter situation, right? But life goes on, and most students work full- or part-time just to afford the luxury of taking classes.
A full load of both classes and work is the norm for commuters, and the chief detriment to student life. Sometimes taking classes is a luxury beyond one’s means, and it becomes necessary to drop away for awhile. Kim, a senior education major, reflects on this experience: “I’m working 40 hours per week and attending school at night. I make a point to be active and attend meetings for organizations I care about the most ... during quarters when I wasn’t able to take classes, I lost touch with some organizations (NAACP) and wasn’t active. I still kept in touch with my closest friends.”
Sue, a registered nurse looking to complete her bachelors degree, agrees: “We can lose contact easily with classmates. I’ve kept active with campus ministry even when not taking classes.” It would seem that even though such an organization might be yet one more demand on an already busy schedule, it also can bethe rock of one’s stability. At times, when commuters need to drop away from classes, their friends in the student organizations are still there, still offering them a home on campus.
To really plummet the depths of diversity, nothing can compare with the urban commuter school. Hereone finds a unique richness in spotting Cleveland State “vikettes” (a midwestern variant of student groups (from Los Unidos Latinos to Young Republicans), vie for commuters’ attention, and it all takes place downtown where thousands live. One cannot belong only to the Environmental Action Group, but also participate in campus ministry’s Hunger Clean-A-Thon and tackle a city block; one can more than participate in the Democratic Socialists’ Society, she/ he can work on a political campaign. If a student acts intentionally, one can really begin to integrate one’s formal education with life as it is lived in the real world.
And in the midst of such diversity, some students find home. Michael, a 24-year-old former navy enlistee, now working on a communications degree and active in our Gay Men’s Support Group, claims: “There are reported cases of racism, sexism and heterosexism on campus. If the minority groups stick together and work hard, they will have few problems ... downtown here, we have a chance to experience the life of the city, the good, bad, rich and poor. I think it makes us smarter and better people and we can better learn what to expect from real life after graduation.”
Friends. Fellowship. Support. Connected. Companionship. Such were the first responses in every case when commuter students were asked what campus ministry has meant for them. Each one of them had the ironic experience of heightened feelings of loneliness during times of peak activity on campus. Commuter schools have a focal point, a gathering place for their students. Yet this place that promises the greatest community can often leave an individual feeling isolated, foreign, alienated and lonely.
Other impediments to a sense of student camaraderie are student apathy, the fact that many individuals already have all the friends they need waiting back home, and that one may not see a new acquaintance from one class after that term is finished.
Each of our interviewed students offered about the same advice. Kim suggests: “Find a group that interests you, get involved, share your ideas and feelings, and you may find people who are like you.” Rob, a graduate student in history, says: “Use the pain of your experience as the spark to drive and sustain you. A well-foundationed campus ministry is among the safest, warmest and most uplifting places to be found on campus.” And Karen takes it a step further: “Take advantage of the counseling center, become involved in campus ministry and get to know well a few staff and faculty persons in your interested areas of study. Be patient. Give it time.”
In a commuter setting, the key word to moving beyond mere toleration and into appreciation is intentionality. Handling the stresses of an overly busy schedule, really enjoying and using the setting of a campus to one’s advantage, growing responsively to a diverse world and cultivating relationships, are all areas that can be ignored or explored—a drain or something that is life giving.
If one is intentional about one’s own growth, there’s no place like the commuter school to enhance the process. The resources are here. Like so many options facing us throughout life, this outcome of our intentional growth in this context really is in our hands. Via con Dios!
Don King served as campus pastor for the metropolitan area of Cleveland, Ohio.