The Residential vs. Commuter ExperienceBilly G. Alsman May 17, 2022
[00:00:07] BT: We all know the scene: A family car pulls up to a cluster of old brick buildings and out jumps a bright eyed-student and their visibly anxious parents. After a drawn-out goodbye filled with long hugs and “I’ll be fine,” the family car drives off, leaving the student to start this exciting new chapter in their life called “college.”
[00:00:28] BHA: Plenty of first year students will experience a move-in day like in the movies, but many others won’t, opting to live away from campus and commute to their school instead. I’m Becca Haupt Aldredge. In this episode of the College Admissions Insider, we’ll be covering the ins and outs of residential college life versus commuting to college.
[00:00:47] BT: I’m Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell. Today, we’ll talk about what distinguishes a “commuter” school from a “residential” one. What should high schoolers who want to commute look for in a school, and how can they engage in campus life. And what’s the value of participating in a residential experience on a college campus?
[00:01:05] BHA: Here to break all of that down for us are Bucknell’s director of residential education Jackie Cetera and community director Ke’ Sims. As the director of residential education, Jackie works to cultivate a supportive living experience and facilitate learning and growth for students in residence halls. As a community director for the South Campus Apartments and Swartz Hall, Ke’ actually lives on campus among the students as a professional staff member. She supervises student residential advisors and develops opportunities that enhance academic success, community engagement, inclusion and so much more. Welcome to the podcast!
[00:01:41] KS: Yeah. We’re really excited to be here.
[00:01:43] BHA: Let’s jump in with the essential question. What distinguishes a commuter school from a residential school?
[00:01:50] JC: One of the biggest differences between a commuter and a residential school is really just that. A residential school has students living and learning all over campus. On a commuter campus, students are coming to class. Then, typically, they leave campus for the day. When students commute, they’re often focused on driving, parking and getting to where they need to go, where residential students have access to support and resources pretty much all of the time and don’t have to focus on mapping out their day, as it relates to the logistics of getting to campus and then actually starting their day.
[00:02:24] KS: Yeah. I think for residential schools, in particular, we’re seeing students who are being offered the opportunity to engage inside the classroom, as well as where they live. So they’re being able to take advantage of the programming that’s happening in the halls and just engaging with students who are also starting that journey with them, whereas for community students it’s more so of a focus sometimes on academics, coming and going. Sometimes, just from that experience, they might miss pieces that come a little bit more natural to residential students because they’re living in spaces that they’re also learning in.
[00:02:55] BT: These aren’t kind of distinct categories without any overlap, right? I mean, schools don’t come in one size. Commuter schools could be a community college but also could be kind of the big state school where there are tons of students living on campus as well, right?
[00:03:08] KS: Yup, absolutely.
[00:03:09] BT: So let’s talk more about the decision to commute. What are some of the reasons students would consider traveling to campus as opposed to living there?
[00:03:19] KS: Yeah. I think the first thing that comes to mind for me is finances. Of course, when students are looking into what school is going to end up being their little four-year home, they’re thinking about tuition. They’re thinking about the expense of having to live on campus. For some students, it might not be realistic for them to be able to take advantage of living in a residential hall and having to pay for that expense during their first year. So a lot of the times, you’ll find that students who maybe just have to have a transparent moment about, “I want to go to my dream school, but I might not be able to pay to live on campus.” They’ll take advantage of an option like being a commuter because it still allows them to be able to go to the school that they’ve been dreaming of, while also still being able to really afford that expense of just being in college and not having to think about the housing piece so soon.
[00:04:04] BHA: Does being a commuter student mean you’ll automatically spend far less time on campus than your peers? I remember having friends in college who commuted, and you would never know it because it seems like they were there all the time.
[00:04:16] JC: Yeah. Not necessarily. I think every campus — big or small, commuter or residential — has resources and support systems in place for their students. So if you’re thinking about commuting, my advice would be to take some time to learn exactly what resources are available and how you can take advantage of them. I would also recommend planning out your time when you get to campus. Do you have time to stay on campus before or after your class to maybe study in the library? Maybe even taking another tour of campus if you’ve already done it once, or maybe for the first time, to see where there’s spaces on campus where you can just sit, read, eat lunch, connect with other folks on campus as you have time between classes as well? Maybe even do some people watching? So I think just really taking time to explore the campus, and you might be surprised about what you learn.
[00:05:10] BT: Yeah. Speaking of exploring the campus, I mean, the college experience isn’t confined to the classroom. It extends to the dining hall and the quad and some of those late-night activities that clubs do. So how can commuter students engage with campus life?
[00:05:25] KS: Yeah. I think, first of all, the most important thing is as you’re kind of coming into the experience as a student, taking advantage of all of those resources that are being listed to you within like that orientation process, right? So knowing where the commuter lounges are or maybe just open lounges on campus that you can just be in, like Jackie said. Knowing where your campus activities office is because usually that’s where you’re going to get all the information in regards to all the campus-wide programming that isn’t just exclusive to the residential halls.
Then also taking advantage of campus leadership positions. As someone who was a commuter, I took advantage of a bunch of different opportunities on campus to be able to learn about my campus and to be able to engage. So I was a student ambassador. Then I worked for a couple other different offices. I was a note taker. I was doing it all. So if you’re interested in those opportunities, knowing those options is going to be able to really help commuter students to really engage within the campus life opportunity.
[00:06:24] BHA: That’s really what it’s all about, Ke’, is feeling connected and finding your people, which it sounds like even as a commuter student, you were able to do really well.
[00:06:31] KS: For sure.
[00:06:33] BHA: So you already listed a ton of different resources and opportunities that are offered for students who commute and students who live on campus. So if there’s a high school student listening to the podcast that knows that they’ll be commuting, what should they be looking for in their top-choice schools?
[00:06:48] JC: I think a good place to start is, is there a transfer orientation that exists? If so, I highly recommend making time to attend that, so that way you can learn about the support and resources that are there. Just to reiterate a little bit of what Ke’ said, thinking and looking about a student life office. It might be called something different depending on where you go but, basically, the offices that are responsible for all things student programming events and basically what’s happening outside of the classroom. Finding out how you can be added to whatever communications exists — whether that be emails, text messages — so you can stay in the know about what’s going on around campus. If something catches your eye, and it’s a Wednesday night, you can go. Or if it’s a Sunday, or maybe before after class, it’s really helpful to be on whatever list that is.
Exploring places to eat on campus could be helpful. If you’re commuting, you could — maybe as you’re mapping out your days — consider, “Oh, I have time between these two classes. Let me eat in the dining hall or grab a to-go from whatever the quick mart is on campus.” That way, you have time to spend a little bit more of your days on campus than just in the car going back and forth, and really being able to experience and meet people as well. Maybe there’s another person sitting underneath the tree eating lunch, and then you just made a new friend or a new buddy.
Also, Ke’ mentioned commuter lounges. So I think this is something to keep an eye out for. Often there’s a space on campus that is dedicated to commuter students, and there may be support and resources there as well. That could kind of become your home away from home in between classes or before. If you start your day a little bit earlier, you can study in there and then meet other folks that are also commuting as well.
[00:08:39] KS: Yeah. I definitely think like that first-year orientation, too. I think, sometimes, for students, when they’re coming into orientation, there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot being said. But just taking advantage of that opportunity because it’s really like just a transitional period for students to start to learn their classmates but also the campus. So a lot of the times, all of those resources that Jackie just listed are also going to intentionally be in the orientation process. They will offer campus tours. There’ll be opportunities to engage with students who might not be first years, like your orientation leaders. Talk to other students. I know sometimes that can be scary too. But if you’re comfortable talking to your OLs or your OAs and having that conversation of what are things to do on campus, those are things that can translate for a student, whether they’re choosing to stay on campus or not.
I also think just planning to be intentional about attending things as well. Because I know, once you get into like the class process, and students start to really take advantage of their academic programs, sometimes you can get really, really consumed by that. But just having that balance of, “Yes, you can go to class and have great time in class,” but also, if it’s lunchtime, and you’re seeing they’re giving out little goodies outside on the quad, or there’s a bouncy house — if you’re a Bucknell student, you know the bouncy houses — they’ll have opportunities like that. Maybe they’re offered on weekends as well because a lot of universities do offer some really fun opportunities on the weekends. Taking advantage of those things will allow you to really be able to get to know your campus and kind of expand your little village that you’ll create on campus once you get here amongst your friends.
[00:10:12] BT: Up top, we talked about some of the reasons why a student might consider commuting, whether that’s financial or maybe family obligations or even a job that a student is undertaking at the same time that they’re going through college. But that doesn’t mean that a commuter student will always be a commuter student. There’s always that option to decide that you want to live on campus at some point too, right? Can we talk about a little bit about what that journey might look like for a commuter student transitioning?
[00:10:36] KS: Yeah. I think for commuter students who might want to have the on-campus experience, there’s a lot of ways that people can do that. The first thing off the top of my head — once again, always going to go hard for the resident education positions — we do offer an RA position on campus. So once again, that was something that I did as a commuter. I commuted my first year. Then coming towards the spring semester, I just had a professional shoulder-tap me and was like, “I think you’ll be really good at this.” Which is also super important, connecting with professionals on campus as well because they can give you the inside scoop on what’s offered.
If students would like to be RAs, RAs live on campus. They’re also probably one of the most engaged students within the residential experience. These are students who are choosing to take a leadership position where they’re helping students to transition into being on campus, but they’re also in charge of the programming and different aspects of living in the hall. So it’s almost like a fresh, new experience for everybody involved. I know, for me, I felt like I was learning with my residents. But it also created a really nice space to be able to kind of join this journey with students, whereas sometimes with our RAs who have already lived on campus, they have all the answers. I’m learning the answers with my students, and that can be like a really empowering and fun opportunity for commuters as well. So there was nothing wrong, even if you’re not living on campus, with stopping by the residential education office and talking about the options that they provide in there as well.
Some offices also offer other programs, so you can get to learn that office as well. So desk assistant programs. Sometimes, I know we had desk assistants that didn’t always live on campus. They were also commuters as well. That was just an extra employment opportunity, and sometimes people use that to kind of learn about what was going on in the halls to be able to figure out if they wanted to be an RA. So there’s like a lot of different options to be able to get engaged and to transition from commuting to living on campus without always having to keep the expense at the forefront.
[00:12:30] BT: So let’s dig in a little bit more into the opposite end of the spectrum, which is that residential college experience. At Bucknell, on campus housing is guaranteed for students all four years, and we really pride ourselves on the rich residential life that we have here. So can we talk about what the value of living on campus is at a school like Bucknell?
[00:12:49] JC: Here at Bucknell, our entire campus is truly a classroom. Living on campus will provide you with opportunities to make new friends and learn from faculty and staff, both inside and outside of the classroom, which I think is really important to mention. We’re committed to providing intentional and deliberate educational experiences that truly support the academic mission of the University. Within our residence hall, building community is really important and at the forefront of the work that we do. So it’s really our hope that if you choose to come to Bucknell and to live on campus, that your residence hall really becomes your home away from home.
We really strive to provide, again, these educational opportunities in these environments of the residence halls where learning and growth is among one of our top priorities. So that shows up in programs and events that really focus on or around academic success, leadership, diversity and inclusion and, of course, wellness.
[00:13:48] BHA: So Ke’, as someone who lives on campus, you want to give us the scoops? What are the different housing options that a student could choose from? Do first year students live in the same types of buildings as upperclassmen? Are there any special housing programs that students should check out at Bucknell but also anywhere?
[00:14:06] KS: For sure. There’s a ton of different options. So one of the biggest things for me that I think is important for first years to know is we offer living-learning communities. So if students are coming in with a certain type of interest, they can potentially live in a first-year community with other students who have the same interest. Two of our first-year areas offer those living-learning communities. We also have other first-year halls where they may not have living-learning communities, but there’s still an opportunity to be able to bond with your fellow peers on the floor.
Some of our campus opportunities in regards to housing, some of them might share with upperclassmen areas, but then we also have very exclusive apartments for upperclassmen as well. Then all of these look different, right? So when we’re talking about like the traditional residential hall experience, what that room looks like, it might be a single. It might be a double. It could be a triple. It depends on where you are. As you kind of work your way up the totem pole, there is apartments offered. So if students really liked to cook, they can do that. There’s always a kitchen regardless of where you go, but if you want just like that in-house cooking feel, some of our apartments offer that. We also offer houses. We offer affinity programs. So kind of like those living-learning communities, affinity houses are typically themed housing for students to be able to live in, and that could look a ton of different ways. We have somewhere for students who might be coming from international areas and would like to live amongst other international students. We have a bed and breakfast house. It can range from different things.
So they definitely depends on what students are looking for. But when you come in, at least as a first year, there is that option to be able to engage in like a living-learning community versus in a community that might not have the living-learning but still offers you the opportunity to bond with your floor mates.
[00:15:47] BT: Yeah. It sounds like there’s a wealth of opportunities and different options there for students at any college really. So, Ke’, you also mentioned all the things that computers can do to engage on campus. But let’s flip it around, and maybe Jackie can tell us a little bit about what engagement might look like for a student who does choose to live on campus 24/7.
[00:16:05] JC: Yeah. Again, the campus is really your classroom when you’re a residential student. Residential students have access and the convenience, really, to all of these resources. Like you mentioned, 24/7 around the clock. So for example, if you’re not feeling well, you can walk over to the student health office and make an appointment or just walk in. If you are needing to chat with a faculty member, you can just kind of more or less roll out of bed and walk across campus into their office and chat with them during office hours.
Engagement for residential students, it’s just always available. If somebody wants to talk — maybe somebody’s struggling with something or just need somebody to talk to — there’s always somebody available, whether that’s in person or over the phone. Of course, when students come to live with us or wherever you would live on campus, you would learn all about that and what all of the support and resources really are.
Again, just living on campus and being a residential student, you’re literally living and learning in the spaces, right? So your room might be on one side of the hallway. Across the hallway, there’s a lounge where you’re studying or where you’re meeting for a club organization. It’s just all kind of intertwined, just so you can live and learn and sleep and make new friends. And there’s just so much more.
[00:17:41] BHA: Jackie, you covered so many great support systems, from faculty office hours to student health and the counseling center and the level of support that student RAs provide to their halls. I mean, it really seems like students are super well taken care of when they live on campus and when they commute.
So what resources or opportunities should high schoolers be on the lookout for as they begin their college search process? What might signal to them — either on a website, or on social media, or as they start to get emails and communications from a college or university — that they might have a residential program that’s a really good fit for a student?
[00:18:17] KS: Social media is a big one. At this point, if students really want to learn about the residential experience or even just about like the residential office, that’s a great opportunity by following the social media pages. A lot of the times, I know here at Bucknell, we’ll have RAs do Instagram takeover, and they might walk students through their day and what that looks like for them. We’re showing people what we’re doing in the halls by posting flyers and posting pictures and videos of the programming that’s happening within those spaces.
We also offer different types of leadership experience in the residence halls. So if students are interested in things like hall council, that’s a great opportunity for residents to be able to kind of immerse themselves in leadership without being an RA — kind of almost like an intro to what leadership in the residence halls might look like and being able to advocate for different experiences.
I can’t express how important it is for students to know where are those counseling offices are. Campus safety is another really big one if students are trying to just kind of figure out whether or not they feel safe in the new experience. Because I can absolutely empathize with just being in a new space and kind of feeling like you need that extra feeling of security, especially when you’re leaving your parents, right? So getting to learn the officers who are in public safety, and meeting them, and introducing yourself if you’re comfortable. Going to the counseling center if you’d like just help with transitioning and being able to talk some of those things out.
But there’s like a ton of different resources and opportunities for students to kind of get to know whether or not, one, they’d like to live on campus at whatever college they’re experiencing but also what that actually would look like if they’re coming into that experience and what opportunities we’re offering for them in a residential experience.
[00:19:57] BT: Yeah, you mentioned students leaving their parents there. That makes me think that these resources are not only important to students who, like you said, will be kind of venturing off into the next phase of their life, independently for the first time, a lot of them. But also to the parents who are dropping their kids off at school and really trusting that the university is going to care for their kids. That applies to residential students as well as commuter students. So what should parents ask, and what should they be looking for from a school or a university as they partake in this process?
[00:20:25] JC: Parents should really start by asking what offices and resources exist specifically for parents. There may be a parent and family office that they can get involved with or specifically ask their questions to.
I also think it’s important for parents to engage in conversations with their students. Parents should first start by having conversations, asking about what their student is most excited for about college. Then also thinking about and understanding that it’s their students’ journey and how they as parents can be a partner in that. Engaging in a conversation to talk about some expectations could really be helpful. For example, “How often do you think that we’ll talk on the phone once you go away to college?” Or specifically asking about what they’re excited for or even maybe what they might be fearful about.
[00:21:17] BHA: Jackie, I loved how you describe the parents as a partner in the process. I think that’s such a really unique way to look at it. And you’re right, setting up those expectations from the beginning are super important. I can imagine a situation where a family member is trying to get in touch with their student, and a student might just be sleeping in. I think we’ve all certainly dealt with situations like that in the residence halls before.
So there’s so much to discover and explore at college for both commuter students and residential students. Let’s close by taking a look at how can a student prioritize their needs about what they want to get out of a college without the fear that they might be missing out, if they choose one direction or the other.
[00:21:56] JC: I’ll start by saying your college experience is what you make of it. As you prepare, it’s important to have some goals and expectations. But it’s also important to allow room for things to not always go as planned. So I would just encourage you to think about what it looks like to step out of your comfort zone and think about how you’ll make some new friends. Most importantly, ask for help when you need it.
[00:22:23] KS: Yeah, I definitely agree. I think that for students coming into this experience, I think that there’s something to say about prioritizing your work-life balance and starting that as a young adult. Of course, once again, you’re here to get a degree. You’re here to pursue your dreams in regards to your career. But you’re also here to build a village and to be able to take advantage of resources that will help you become a more well-rounded young person as you transition out of this experience.
I could probably speak for anybody who works in higher ed when I say that when we commit to this work, we’re committing to students because we want to make sure that students feel like they were fulfilled in this experience, and they got to see every aspect of this college experience. Oftentimes, we’re thinking about all of the amazing things we did in college and how we would love to have that shared experience with our students coming in. They can leave saying, “Wow, these were the best four years,” or, “I had my highs and lows, but I learned so much out of this experience.”
So don’t be afraid of the process. Know that there’s plenty of people in the room who are thinking the same thing like, “Crap, this is new. It’s a new situation. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going to come of it.” But there’s so much to learn and so much to do. And also pace yourself. Don’t feel like you have to do everything within your first year. You got four years. Take advantage of those four years. Spread it out. If you want to focus in on academics one year. Then the next year, you want to get super engaged, and maybe you want to join the organizations, join the fraternities or sororities, or other non-Greek affiliated organizations on campus. There is no limitation to what you can do within these four years. You just take advantage of what you want to do, plan, be intentional, and have a good time and have fun.
[00:24:01] BT: Yeah. No matter how you decide to shape your college experience, there’s so much support there and different paths that you can travel down in college for sure. Well, that’s a great note, I think, to end this episode of College Admissions Insider. Thanks again to Ke’ and Jackie for lending their insight into this important aspect of the college admissions process.
[00:24:22] JC: Thanks so much for having us.
[00:24:24] KS: Yes, thank you.
[00:24:25] BHA: I think our students are super lucky to have both of you working in our residential education office, so thanks for being here. And thanks to everyone out there listening. If you’re a fan of the podcast, please take a moment to rate, subscribe and share this episode with the students and families in your life.
[00:24:40] BT: We’ll be back with another episode in just two weeks. In the meantime, send your questions, comments and episode ideas to [email protected].
[00:24:49] BHA: Finally, you’re invited to follow Bucknell on your favorite social media apps. Just look for @bucknellu on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and now TikTok. You can also follow our student-run Instagram account, which is @iamraybucknell.
[00:25:04] BT: Until next time, keep on reaching for your dreams and your dream school.