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Commuter students need connection

Jo Calhoun


Though first-year students come to campus with diverse backgrounds they share common hopes and dreams. They want to be successful in college, and they hope to make life-long friends.

Colleges and universities structure campus life to help students achieve these goals, doing everything they can to support academic and social success. A satisfying out-of-classroom experience is important to students feeling connected to their school, and when students are connected they’re more likely to stay in school and graduate.

Does this play out differently for students who live at home during college? Without the experience of living in a residence hall, commuter students must work harder to make meaningful campus connections.

Here are three ways to support and encourage commuter students.

Release your students from their traditional childhood roles.

Students learn from their peers, and the freedom to stay with friends in a spontaneous way is important. Students who live on campus don’t have curfews, or stop what they are doing to be at the family dinner table. They can continue a group discussion into the evening or go to a movie or out for a bite with friends.

As parents, our expectations about family roles need to change when our commuter students enter college. What doesn’t change is our role as our students’ number one source of support.

If you have a college student living at home, you now have another adult in the house. That means they come and go as an adult; you may rarely see them for meals; you might consider keeping their family responsibilities to a minimum. This may be very different from high school! To smooth the transition, talk to your student about:

  • Whether or when you will have meals together
  • Household chores
  • Quiet hours
Encourage them to experience all their campus has to offer.

This can happen by:

  • Joining one or two campus clubs or organizations. Student groups based on common interests, cultural identity or faith affiliation offer an important sense of belonging and grounding.
  • Staying on campus between classes (when possible). Campus libraries are central gathering places for undergraduates doing group study or just having a cup of coffee. You want your student to be present when and where growth and learning take place.
  • Eating in the dining hall. Many campuses offer non-residential students the option of purchasing a meal plan or buying individual meals. Dining facilities are often in residence halls, and that’s where like-minded students bond, classroom discussions continue, and plans — and memories — are made.
Explain the advantages of an on-campus job.

Part-time work (preferably no more than 15-20 hours a week) increases a student’s chances of doing well academically and has a big social benefit, too. Student employees meet more of their fellow students as well as more faculty members, administrators and staff — a great network for career mentorship, professional references and all-around support.

As parents, our expectations about family roles need to change when our commuter students enter college. What doesn’t change is our role as our students’ number one source of support.

Our hopes, dreams and fears are the same as theirs. We want them to be successful and to cultivate lifelong friendships.

Even when our students still live at home, it’s important to give them the same freedoms that we would if we had left them and their suitcases in a residence hall. They have earned the right to spread their wings, even if they are returning to the nest at night.

Jo Calhoun worked in Student Affairs for over 30 years at institutions including Grinnell College in Iowa, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. Her specializations include first year programs, academic advising, career services and parent relations.
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