Redefining the Commuter Experience

by | Oct 6, 2023 | Student engagement, Student partnership, Student support

Nicholas Weise — Research Explorer The University of ManchesterDr. Nicholas Weise is a teaching-focused academic who holds several leadership roles, including being the University of Manchester’s Theme Lead for Student Success & Academic Development, as well as the Faculty of Biology, Medicine & Health’s Lead for Student Experience & Inclusion. In this interview, Dr. Weise sheds light on the unique circumstances faced by commuter students in universities and colleges, which often result in feelings of isolation and being unheard. Unlike their peers who reside in on-campus housing or shared flats, commuter students face distinct challenges that necessitate a deeper understanding in order to redefine their experience of higher education and cultivate a more inclusive and supportive environment. 


Challenges Faced by Commuter Students: 

Commuter students, unlike their peers living on campus, often live on their own or with their families or spouses. As a result, they may not experience the same sense of belonging and support system that comes with living in residence halls. Moreover, the assumption made by lecturers and other university staff members that all students live on or near campus can result in overlooking or misunderstanding the experiences of commuter students, leaving them feeling ignored and unseen. This lack of academic communal support can make them feel disconnected from the university community. 

The campus layout itself can pose challenges for commuter students. Unlike those living on campus, who can conveniently return to their residence halls or flats for lunch or a refreshing break, commuters often lack dedicated spaces for resting, socialising, or reheating meals. The campus design and facilities are not always conducive to their needs, leaving them without a place to connect with other commuters or relax during their break. 

Another issue lies in the timetabling of classes. Commuter students may find themselves faced with early morning or late evening sessions, making it difficult for them to align their schedules. Arriving early in case of delays or waiting for classes to start can be a source of stress and ultimately disengagement. Having a scattered timetable can disrupt their daily routine, making it challenging to find a suitable place to rest or refresh before their lectures. 


Significance and Impact of These Challenges: 

The impact of these challenges on commuter students goes beyond their well-being; it also affects their academic performance. Research has shown that students reporting higher well-being tend to perform better academically (Hyper link will be included). However, commuter students often struggle to achieve the same level of success as their peers in residence halls. The lack of academic and peer support contributes to their lower grades on average (hyper link). 


Research Conducted: 

To gain deeper insights into the experiences of commuter students, various research initiatives and engagement programs have been undertaken. The Differential Attainment Project shed light on how commuter students often feel excluded and not considered ‘real’ students like their peers. Conversations with a student partner intern who was a commuter student herself provided valuable perspectives. Initiatives such as living at home mentoring schemes and engaging with commuter peer mentors have offered opportunities to learn directly from those who have lived the commuter experience. Weekly events and a commuter newsletter also provide platforms for interaction and gathering feedback. 


Redefining the commuter experience: 

 One of the primary steps in redefining the commuter student experience is to redefine what it means to be a commuter student. The University of Manchester has moved away from specific criteria such as distance or mode of transportation and instead focus on the absence of living with other students. This new definition allows the core issue of lacking social cohesion, community belonging, and peer networks to be addressed. It encompasses students who live with family members, on their own, or with a spouse/partner or children, without the opportunity to form connections with fellow students. 

To improve the commuter student experience, The University of Manchester has implemented various initiatives. They have established a commuter peer mentoring scheme, providing opportunities for commuters to connect with each other in their local areas and receive support from experienced mentors. Pre-welcome week activities are organised to give commuters an early introduction to campus life and the chance to meet other commuters, fostering a sense of belonging and validating their status as real students (being just like everyone else). 

The institution also hosts social and networking events throughout the semester specifically designed for commuters, ensuring regular opportunities for interaction and community building. Moreover, a dedicated space on campus tailored to the needs of commuter students is in the process of being co-designed and installed. This space will include lounge areas, kitchens, quiet rooms, prayer rooms, and lockers, making it more convenient and comfortable for commuters to socialise, study, and store their belongings. 

Technology plays a vital role in supporting commuter students. Online videos and materials can be utilised for delivering information, allowing commuters to access them at their convenience. This enables students to manage their time effectively, especially when juggling part-time work, long travel times or family responsibilities. On-campus sessions should focus on active learning and meaningful engagement, providing opportunities for students to practice and interact with their peers. By leveraging technology to facilitate self-paced learning and reserving on-campus activities for valuable and interactive sessions, the institution can optimise the best use of commuter students’ time and enhance their learning experience. 

To sum up, the commuter student experience is a complex and often overlooked aspect of university life. The challenges faced by commuter students, from feeling isolated to limited access to information and resources, can have a significant impact on their well-being and academic performance. However, by redefining the commuter experience and implementing targeted initiatives, universities have the power to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for these students. The University of Manchester’s efforts to rewrite the definition of commuter students, establish peer mentoring programs, and enhance campus spaces demonstrate a commitment to addressing the unique needs of commuters. 


Further Reading: