Student group looks to help first-year commuters

Gopher Hall aims to help freshman commuters connect to the University.

Student group looks to help first-year commuters

Hailey Colwell

Freshman Thuylinh Vuong spends an hour on the bus to get to the University of Minnesota every day. Then she spends an hour getting back.

Vuong, who’s studying nursing, said commuting has improved her organizational skills but also presents some challenges.

“Considering you’re in college and not really knowing where you can go or who you can talk to is kind of tough,” she said.

It can be difficult for freshmen who commute to meet people and find resources at the University. But the student group Commuter Connection is piloting a new program this fall that aims to help freshman commuters overcome these barriers.

The group, Gopher Hall, is in its first year. It aims to serve as a community in the way that a University residence hall does, but it’s hosted on a Facebook page. Three University upperclassmen with experience as commuters serve as community advisers for group members.

The advisers use the page to share campus events and resources. In the future, they hope to hold one-on-one meetings with freshman commuters to check in and offer advice.

Genetics senior Leah VandenBosch, an adviser to the group, said she’s noticed that commuter students who don’t get involved on campus when they first arrive often never do. Commuter Connection members tend to be more involved, she said.

“The students that do end up coming into our group regularly do sort of open up and seem to develop as people,” VandenBosch said.

It’s easy for commuter students to fall into a routine of going to class and going home right away, VandenBosch said. Gopher Hall is a way to help students avoid that.

Being in a student group can develop students’ social lives and help them get more out of their college experience, she said.

Gopher Hall is modeled off a similar program at Australian National University, which has a large commuter population, said Amelious Whyte, chief of staff to the University of Minnesota’s vice provost for student affairs.

Commuter Connection co-adviser and Office for Student Affairs graduate assistant Caitlin Badger said much of Gopher Hall’s first year has been spent gauging the needs of student members.

“Everybody has different needs,” she said. “We’re just trying to broaden the different types of opportunities available for students who … are looking for different ways to find out more about the University.”

Vuong, who’s participating in Gopher Hall, said the Facebook group has given her a sense of community at the University. But she’s never seen anyone in the group on campus, she said.

VandenBosch said the group is currently working to make one-on-one appointments between students and community advisers to address that issue.

‘Close that gap’

Whyte said making connections at the University and establishing friendships are the biggest challenge for freshman commuters.

Making it to meetings on campus at night can be especially challenging, which makes it difficult for freshman commuters to get involved in student groups and other campus activities, he said.

On the academic side, Whyte said, it can be difficult for commuters to meet on campus for group projects.

OSA has worked for years to mitigate the effects that living off campus can have on students’ lives, he said.

“It’s a constant work in progress,” he said.

The office created Commuter Connection and has developed Welcome Week programming focused on helping commuters meet other students and make use of campus resources, he said.

“The challenge is we have a large number of commuters,” Whyte said, “and so it’s a constant effort to try to make sure they’re engaged, that they know about different events [and] that there are things that we can do to help them mitigate the fact that they don’t live on campus.”

Commuter students may have less academic success than their peers who live on campus, Whyte said.

“We want to close that gap,” he said.