When Adrian Vatchinsky decided to enroll at New York University, he pictured his next four years as the traditional college experience, living on the school's campus in Manhattan and majoring in physics.
But when unexpected financial circumstances arose, Vatchinsky, who hails from Long Island, realized he'd have to live at home to make ends meet. Now entering his sophomore year, Vatchinsky commutes about an hour and half each way to and from NYU's campus. Though his travel expenses totaled about $4,000 his freshman year, he estimates he has saved at least $15,000 already without housing or city dining expenses. He's also found ways to make his college experience more than just an attractive bottom line, he says.
"At first, commuting might seem daunting and very saddening, because it's not the college experience like TV and your friends bring it up to be," Vatchinsky says. "In the end, once you understand the campus, find friends, get involved in activities, and start participating after classes, it really does not make that much of a difference."
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With a little hard work and some planning, you or your commuter student can have just as successful an experience as Vatchinsky. Here's what commuters and academic advisers recommend you do to make your college experience feel as authentic as possible:
1. Get involved: Finding a club or organization you're passionate about is one of the quickest ways to meet like-minded peers and feel connected to your school. Whether you live on campus or 30 miles away, it's imperative to find your niche within the community.
"It doesn't have to be a huge event, but find something that gets you excited about coming to campus," recommends Heather Horowitz, assistant director of student activities at Philadelphia University. Some schools, like suburban Boston-based Lasell College, even schedule club meetings during the day, so commuter students don't have to hang around late into the evenings to partake.
2. Set expectations: Continuing to live at home with your parents may seem reminiscent of high school, but the household dynamic won't be the same once you're a commuter student, notes Lynne Miller, coordinator of commuter students and family programs at the University of Pittsburgh. Not only will you be more worn out after two trips and a day of classes, but you'll likely also have more studying to do in college than you did as a high school student.
Have a family meeting to clarify expectations about chore loads and study habits, as well as curfews and rules that students living on campus might not have, Miller notes. "That can be frustrating for a commuter student who knows their peers are able to go do what they want, but they still have rules to follow [at home]."
[Learn how parents should prepare their college students to handle finances.]
3. Seek out resources: With a little investigation, students may be able to uncover commuter-specific benefits. "Every university has resources on campus that will help them with time management and study skills, but since their lives are a little busier, sometimes it's harder for commuter students to get connected to those resources," Pittsburgh's Miller notes. "Commuter students have to take ownership over finding things."
Perks vary from school to school, but many institutions offer more than basics like commuter lounges and temporary lockers. In Pittsburgh, four universities—Pitt, Point Park University, Chatham University, and Carlow University—make it easier for commuter students to make friends, carpool mates, and study buddies at joint networking events. At Philadelphia University, commuters are eligible for prizes, from gift cards to local eateries to Nintendo Wiis, if they attend on-campus events, get good grades, or seek out a tutor.
4. Get a mentor: Students who live in the dorms have built-in veteran support through their residential adviser. For commuters, however, making a connection with a seasoned student isn't as easy as walking down the residence hall floor. Many schools do facilitate mentor relationships before a commuter student begins their first year, so take advantage of the offer early, mentors advise.
"For off-campus students, you want them to have that upper-class resource and face they know," says Horowitz of Philadelphia University, where all commuter students are assigned a mentor. "We want them to know that just because they don't live on campus, they're not going to go by the wayside."
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5. Push yourself out of your comfort zone: Though striking up conversations in class or the student union may feel a little uncomfortable, it's important to force yourself, if necessary, to make connections around campus. Otherwise, you'll be trekking to school solely to take courses and may miss out on a large part of your collegiate experience, NYU's Vatchinsky notes. For him, taking the initiative to form homework groups and find lunch buddies was slightly awkward, but only at first.
"If you're a commuter, you're in charge of forging your own friendship circle," he says. "Ironically, I now know more people than my residential friends, who just isolated themselves to their [residence hall] floor. You have to take the initiative, but I think it pays off if you can follow through with it."
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