When students move off campus, or have never lived on campus, there are certain connections that they often lose or miss. The biggest connection is of that to a residence hall and the natural community that happens there.
This is hardest specifically for freshman or transfer commuter students, since they would never get the opportunity to join those communities. As people who care for the holistic development of all students, we student affairs professionals get to be intentional in how we build community for these students.
A few challenges to think about:
They may not want to connect to campus: some just want to do class and that’s it. Some of our commuters move off campus specifically to escape the hustle and bustle of campus life, and having RA’s that keep them accountable on a residence hall.
Don’t use the “unconnected” stereotype: they have many connections that may include part-time or full-time jobs, families, romantic relationships, community connections. Often they are very connected, just not in the way that the University would always desire for them to be.
They may not identify as “commuter". This word can sometimes box them in and make them feel like outsiders. Which makes our job more difficult to classify them.
Often, they may feel lonely: this may hinder them from initially connecting with you or feeling like they belong at your events.
I have had the opportunity over the past two and half years to work specifically on behalf of our institutions 6k+ off-campus student body. This includes freshmen, transfers, upperclassmen, graduate, doctoral, med-students, seminary students, and law students. This list is not exhaustive, especially because we also have students that live locally and are all online – or off-campus students that are parent-students.
Over the last few years, our team grew from part of one person’s job to now including several professionals, interns, and student workers. We’ve broken plenty of rules, and learned how to do things better.
Here are a few things essential to success:
Identify a handful of outgoing, intentional, and impactful off-campus students; inviting students who can easily leverage other students can be a powerful “tactic” to engaging a larger number of students.
Remember, students know other students who know other students. This is about networking, just like we do with colleagues at other schools. Meet the right students and the doors to more handfuls of students opens.
Go where your students are. I’m sure that you can identify a few places on campus that students tend to gather. If you can’t, then go explore your campus; walk around with a fresh eye that may reveal to you some great places to meet students. Do some micro-programming. This is where your core group of students comes in.
We have begun small programs that are easy to set-up, take little effort to maintain, and can make a big impact.
An example is a simple “welcome back to campus” table after academic breaks. We supply coffee and donuts – using traditional drip brewers ($20 – one-time fee), large can of ground coffee ($10), one-use cups and lids ($5), cheap sugar and creamer ($5), 20 dozen donuts (the most expensive piece, at about $100), and volunteer student leaders. This is an easy to maintain a program that is relatively cheap if you have a small budget. This is one of the most popular services we provide for our commuters – it makes them feel welcome to campus, like they belong, and grateful that it is just for them. I’ve been called the “Mean Commuter Guy” because I have turned residential students away without donuts or coffee – “Sorry, this is just for commuters, maybe next year if you move off campus!”
Create a simple newsletter that can go out by email. I know what you’re thinking, “students don’t read emails". But that’s not always true. Our email newsletter has the highest open rate of all University emails. Over the past two years we have hammered it into the commuter culture that if you want FREE food and fun things to do, open the newsletter or you may miss out.
Remember, this generation has serious FOMO. Leverage it!
DON’T BUILD SILOS! Enrich current programming by helping to get commuters involved with what is already there. There are many other professionals on campus who are doing amazing things that your students would benefit from. Adopt a servant mindset and help your colleagues have successful, well attended programs, without demanding the spot light or glory that may come after. You never know who will scratch your back later.
The possibilities are endless in what can be done for off-campus students. The best tip of all that I’ve learned is not to get disheartened. It may take a year of plodding through services and events that don’t look impactful, but students notice who is serving them and who is not.
The sun will rise over the mountain a little later than it does over the plains – you’ll get there with patience and perseverance.
Thank you to the Liberty Office of Student Life for the photos provided.