Living on campus is such an important part of college life that it’s hard to imagine being a student without it.
The dorm. Your roommates. The football games. Those late-night study sessions (that sometimes turn into drinking games). It’s all part of the traditional college experience.
But commuter students miss out on some of those events. It can leave anyone prone to feeling like an outsider — disconnected, isolated and lonely. These aren’t just passing sentiments; they can lower one’s self-esteem, leading to depression and poor academic performance.
The commuter student has one big advantage over resident students, though: They don’t need to incorporate room and board into their college costs, especially if they live at home.
I can relate to all of the above, since I was a commuter student for all but one semester in college. If you commute to campus and feel like your car and classroom comprise your entire world, don’t give up. Here are some ways to improve your circumstances, financially and personally.
Budget for transportation expenses
Commuter students may have cheaper college costs and lower student loans since housing and dorm expenses aren’t part of the price tag — but they’ve got their cars to contend with.
Parking registration costs can range anywhere from a small fortune to an arm and a leg at many colleges and universities.
Take the UC Irvine campus: Commuter students pay $303 per semester in parking permit fees, $909 for the academic year, and $1,212 for the calendar year. That’s among the most expensive parking rates in the UC network.
Depending on how far away you live from school, you’ll need to incorporate gas, insurance, and vehicle maintenance into your budget. Don’t forget the occasional street parking meter fees when you can’t find a spot to park in the commuter lot.
If you live closer to campus, can you arrange to carpool with other commuter students, taking turns driving on certain days of the week? You might also check for nearby public transportation. Depending on the area’s infrastructure, an accessible rail or bus system can take the place of driving to class (at least every so often).
Schedule your classes strategically
Any class schedule for a resident student is going to be convenient. If you have two classes in the morning, you can walk back to your dorm and catch some zzz’s before returning later in the evening for a class after dinner.
Commuter students aren’t so lucky. Unless you want to drive home after your 10 am class just to come all the way back for your 7 pm lecture, you’ll be wasting time, energy, and gas.
Or, you can save money on transportation costs — and your own time — by scheduling your classes together two or three days a week. Stacking them in concentrated time blocks can give you at least one or two days off from driving, more time to study, and a better school-life balance.
Keep in mind that if your schedule doesn’t quite work out the way you’d like, there are still plenty of ways to make the most of your time if you’re on campus all day. Become a regular at your campus library and take advantage of the quiet atmosphere for studying or catching up on homework.
Finding a work study position or other job on campus is another way to utilize the time wisely, since it can earn you money, reduce your tuition bill, and garner valuable experience needed after graduating.
Immerse yourself in campus activities
If there’s one persistent feeling you’ll have as a commuter student, it’s a lack of connection with the campus culture.
The resident students live on campus, so they have constant opportunities to make lasting friends and live a somewhat independent, adult lifestyle. That can leave you feeling left out.
Your school has a wealth of resources to choose from. Look into joining clubs, groups, or student organizations you’re interested in and passionate about, and get involved in on-campus activities or sporting events.
Your school might even have a commuter student association, where you can meet other students who trek to campus every day. Stick with it; you may not make fast friends or hit it off with everyone, but keep tapping into the goings-on across campus and you’ll find like-minded students.
Stay realistic about developing a social life, too. Living on campus isn’t one big party, as much as you like to think it is. Even resident students who live in a dorm full of people can have a hard time fitting in and finding their niche.
As a commuter, you have the chance to step back and approach college life in a more autonomous way, but you may need to get outside of your comfort zone to avoid getting stuck in a home-commute-school cycle.
Build a rapport with mentors
As a commuter, it can be hard to connect with your professors and advisors when you’re not a resident student who can pop on over to their department whenever you like.
Budget your time and schedule meetings with your teachers. Find out when their office hours are and schedule frequent check-ins with them to start building some familiarity. Ideally, every student — resident or commuter — should do this to enable a better relationship with their professors.
When I commuted to college, I treated my journalism professors like editors and checked in with them outside of class hours regularly throughout the semester. I found this added step brought college to a more professional level and helped me succeed academically.
If you’re an underclassman, your student center may also be able to coordinate a mentor relationship, much like a resident student would have with dorm RAs. Having an older peer to talk to can help bridge the gap between commuter and resident students and make you feel more included in campus life.
Don’t forget your parents
If you’ll be commuting from home, you’ll need to devise some new living arrangements with your parents.
You and your parents should already be setting aside time to talk about the basics of college expenses and how you’ll pay for it. Use this as a chance to discuss everything from paying rent while living at home, contributing to bills, paying your own way when it comes to gas and transportation, or buying your own groceries.
Opening a dialogue with your parents sets you up for true independence when you do move out to your own apartment. Sure, you might be just a bit envious of those resident students who seem to have it so much easier, but think about how much the responsibility will pay off in the end.
Lastly, talk to your parents about the prospect of commuting as early as you can. Are you commuting out of financial necessity? Is it a personal preference? Is it feelings of homesickness? What are your expectations, and theirs?
Ultimately, these are highly personal talking points that only you and your parents can solve. Make the most of your academic experience in college, keep your grades up, and look to involve yourself in the campus culture in ways that suit you.
You’ll find that your time as a commuter student will give you unique perspectives and experiences, setting you up for post-grad success that’ll be the envy of any resident student.
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