No free ride

For commuters, the trek to campus is only part of the challenge.

September 24, 2004|By Michael Tunison | Michael Tunison,Special to Baltimoresun.com

As the college mythos goes, commuters are nowhere to be seen.

Most fictional depictions of college life revolve around dorms or frat houses -- namely stuff on campus. Though commuters aren't figured prominently in the lore of university life, that hardly means they're relegated to being campus ciphers.

Nationwide, it's been reported in various commuter guides that roughly 87 percent of all college students commute from off-campus homes. Maryland is no exception, with commuter-rich schools such as Towson University, with a commuter enrollment of 75 percent, and Bowie State University with a commuter population of 84.6 percent in 2002. Defined broadly as one who doesn't live on campus in a residence hall or apartment, the term commuter encompasses a wide range of students. Which means it's not just driving that defines the commuter, who can also travel by walking, biking or public transportation.

Like most things, being a commuter has its pros and cons: If you're living at home, you still have parents to cover everyday needs, such as laundry and food. When you want peace to study, you can usually get it.

The drawbacks, however, include the time lost from driving to and from campus, which, depending on how far away you live, can be substantial. Another is the sense of alienation of seemingly being outside the school's social scene, especially if you're living with your parents and not sharing a house or apartment on the periphery of campus.

The key for commuters is learning how to overcome the obstacles and get the most of the college experience no matter where they call home.

Social scene

College can be a difficult transition into an academic and social environment. Those who can afford to live on campus are thrown headlong into the frenzy. Those who commute, for reasons financial or preferential, have a different experience.

"College feels a lot more secondary when you're a commuter," said Leaf Pell, a former commuting student at Towson University who now lives on campus. "I had a hard time focusing because there was much more to deal with, real-life issues."

Enyo Blege, a commuter assistant at University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, says commuter students can see their lives as "The Triangle," split between the house, class and homework.

"The school's already big enough as it is," said Chris Woodland, 23, a former commuter student at University of Maryland College Park and now one at the University of Maryland University College. "When you have to leave that and go to your parents' house or an apartment, that can take away from getting into the whole social environment."

"It's a lot of loneliness," Blege said. "They don't have an RA to push them to socialize and get involved, which is different from students living on campus."

Getting involved

Therefore, what commuter advisers will invariably exhort students to do is get involved with a campus club, activity or job. It is sound advice, and most schools hold fairs or events to familiarize students with the array of clubs and organizations. An example is the University of Maryland College Park's First Look Fair, typically held during the last week of September.

In college, especially a large one, you would be hard-pressed not to find at least one club that suits your interests. Movie buffs, anime freaks, newshounds, breakdancers, writers, poets, activists, martial artists -- every niche is there for the exploring. Pick and choose until you find something you like.

Because commuter students typically can't tarry around campus on a school day after classes, chatting up some classmates is one good way to find a social toehold and earn a valuable study buddy. These can be invaluable for a commuter student, who may not have as many distractions in their living space as the on-campus student but still have a host of concerns for keeping up with studies.

Leslie Perkins, the coordinator of commuter programming and leadership at the University of Maryland College Park, instructs commuters to make use of the larger breaks they have between classes. Often, after being on campus most of the day, a student can be worn down and tired. Hence, it is best to get homework done in the library or other study areas on campus.

But sometimes that's not so easy.

"Being a commuter can mess up your thought process because you feel like you have to rush home to get anything done," said Woodland. "You get the attitude that you have to get it done at home instead of at the library or on campus."

Whereas resident students can retreat between classes and dump off things they don't need or relax in their rooms, commuters remain in a public or working environment. One way at least to alleviate some of the extra discomfort of lugging around all those books and folders is to rent a locker. Inquire if your school has lockers for rent (usually for a semester) in the student union or other convenient areas on campus.

Road trip

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