Commuters get help at UM

May 08, 1991|By Patrick McGuire

Remember when going to college meant moving from home to dormitory and, except for holidays and summer vacations, remaining there lock, stock and portable refrigerator a good four years or more?

Those were the days when almost every college had its population of off-campus "townies" who squeezed their classes around a job. Still, everyone knew that the true collegiate experience belonged to those who lived among the ivory towers: evening lectures, concerts, pep rallies, the cultivation of a mentor relationship with a professor, the luxury of being able to roll out of bed in the morning, walk a few steps to the dining hall for breakfast and head on to class without worrying about paying bills, fighting traffic or finding a parking place.

Would it surprise you to know, however, that the venerated FTC residential college student has become something of a dinosaur? And that the once rarefied, off-campus student has multiplied so rapidly in the past two decades that many colleges are opening offices just to deal exclusively with their commuting problems?

Consider the numbers: More than 83 percent of all college students nation-wide are commuters, that is, students who do not live on campus. Almost 50 percent of all college students today are over 25 and attend classes part time, a figure destined to increase in the next few years according to Dr. Barbara Jacoby, director of the innovative Office of Commuter Affairs at the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

Dr. Jacoby also directs the National Clearinghouse for Commuter Programs from her College Park office, exchanging ideas with 500 other colleges across the country on ways to assist off-campus students. Because, she says, even though commuter students now make up the bulk of student populations, the dynamic focus of most colleges is geared almost by necessity toward its residential students.

"Commuter students don't have the same quality collegiate experience as those who live on campus," she said. "It's my job to give it to them."

That she has been successful is evident in her recently published book "The Student as Commuter," ($15, George Washington University) a compendium of her 12 years of experience in the Maryland commuter affairs office, the last 7 as its director.

Commuter students, she said, face several hurdles in their attempts not only to make their classes on time but to feel part of their future alma mater.

"First of all, commuting takes a long time," she said. "All of that battling the beltway. It takes time and energy. And what if your car breaks down? There are all sorts of transportation issues here."

Because of that, many commuters, she said, pack their classes into a two or three-day schedule rather than come to campus every day of the week. "Therefore they are not as free to take advantage of opportunities available on campus. To attend an evening lecture, they would have to make special transportation arrangements. Most of them are not going to come back in the evening. They're not going to battle the beltway twice in one day."

According to her most recent figures, there are more than 19,000 undergraduate students at Maryland who live off campus and another 8,900 graduate students, compared to the 8,000 students who live in campus housing.

"Most commuter students have multiple life roles," she said. "College is an add-on to other things they are doing." And yet, she said, "They want relationships with faculty and with their peers. They want to feel a sense of belonging. Very often they don't feel they belong. They park their car, go to class and go home. One commuter student told me he felt like his freshman year was the 13th grade. You end up feeling very anonymous, like a number."

Recognizing the trend, the university in 1972 opened its office of commuter affairs and at the same time organized the National Clearinghouse. Through trial and error, said Dr. Jacoby, the university has implemented several policies which attempt to integrate commuter students into the college and to help the college to accommodate them better.

For one thing, the bookstore and food services remain open in the evening, and commuter students have access to their own lounge in the Stamp Student Union. Also, many special events such as lectures and concerts are now held during daylight hours and a recent Commuter Student Appreciation Day offered the off campus crowd discounts in the bookstore and dining halls.

And not long ago the Commuter Affairs office began offering free coffee and donuts to commuter students every Wednesday morning from 7:30 to 9:30 in the atrium of the student union. A different university department sponsors the weekly event and information is provded on different functions and ways to get involved in college life, inlcuding job opportunities.

"We encourage on-campus jobs," said Dr. Jacoby, "as well as their belonging to student organizations. We want to help these students find a niche for themselves on campus, either a job or an organization or a mentor program. We want them to just have a feeling that they are comfortable. It may be as simple as having the same study area that they can use every day."

She noted that in the past, the university bestowed awards on students involved in volunteer services, but gave most of the awards to residential students. Now, she said, commuter students are recognized for work they do in their own communities off campus.

Even though her national clearinghouse has 500 member colleges, she said, most campuses still don't have a full-time office handling the commuter problem. That may not be just a headache for students, she said, but a financial problem for the university down the road.

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