A 20 minute drive and no campus life to be found

For some commuter campuses, university community almost non-existent

Growing up, I never imagined my university experience would involve a 20-minute commute to campus everyday. Yet like many aspects of life, my vision of university did not turn out the way I had expected, and here I am, with a parking pass instead of keys to a residence hall at the University of Manitoba.

The U of M is very much a commuter campus. While I know a few people who still live in residence or close to campus, most of my friends have at least 15-20 minute bus ride or drive to class, and don’t stay on campus for long after their last class of the day. “Commuter campuses are known as ones where students come in the morning, and because they’re often able to get home by dinner time, they leave to get home to their families, to their jobs, and so forth,” said John Danakas, director of public affairs at the U of M, who explained that approximately three quarters of the student population at the university is from Winnipeg or the outlying area.

This can make it extremely hard to have a sense of community, considering the majority of the student population is avoiding staying on campus for longer than they absolutely need to.  This point was brought up at a town hall meeting at the University of Manitoba last week when discussing some of the challenges in enhancing student experience at the university. “[Students] are with us in our classrooms, but they’re also thinking about other things all the time. They really don’t have the time to think about becoming more engaged with our community,” Susan Gottheil, U of M’s vice-president academic, said during the town hall.

While the campus is usually packed during the day, the shift of students off campus after 4pm is quite dramatic and life and university life tends to die down pretty quickly.  On weekends, it’s a ghost town.

Students at other commuter campuses, such as the University of Alberta, notice the same lack of kinship amongst students. “As long as I’ve been here, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a campus community. Basically, when [students] are done school, they go home,” said Jonn Kmech, who graduated from the U of A last year and is currently the editor in chief of the Gateway, the U of A student newspaper.

Danakas pointed out that universities with larger residence populations often have an easier time communicating with students because there’s a much larger population that are on campus 24/7. “A commuter campus, often, people are looking to get home, looking to get to their job, but a campus where a larger proportion of your students are residence students . . .  they’re looking for activities and its easier to engage them in campus activities,” he said.

He may have a valid point. I’ve often found that my experience at the U of M versus the experiences of my friends who attend schools that are known as university towns, such as Queens or Waterloo, are vastly different, and that they are much more committed to their academics and extracurricular activities than I will ever be.

While a 15 minute drive to campus is part of the routine for most students at the U of M, living farther that a 15 minute walk from campus is considered a long way for most Queens University students, explained Christian Baechler, an engineering student at Queens. “Being so close to campus makes it easy to get to class and extracurricular activities. Last year it wasn’t uncommon for me to return home four or five times a day,” he said.

Unlike my ghost town of a campus, Baechler explained that his alma mater is quite lively in the evenings and on weekends as well. “With students living so close, it is easy to travel back and forth from campus. There are a number of bars, cafeterias, gym, libraries and coffee shops, all of which have a number of people after hours,” said Baechler.

Baechler described the area within 10 to 15 minutes from the university as the “student village,” or “student ghetto” as it is jokingly referred to, where the mast majority of students live. “As a student, this is a lot of fun as most of your friends are in very close proximity. Students are generally pretty understanding of each other and of course there is always an active night life,” he said. “I think that getting the same experience at a commuter school would have been much more difficult . . .  if I were to choose again I would go the same route.”

While some students choose to find accommodation close to the university, the neighbourhoods surrounding the U of M campus are more heavily populated with professors than students, and the night life is pretty much non-existent. This can create a conflict when trying to decide whether to find a place close to campus for convenient commuting, or deciding to live closer to downtown and closer to things to keep you occupied after your studying is done.

Students often find that living close to campus may be super convenient for late night study sessions, and on days when you forget to set your alarm clock, but proves to be much more inconvenient when trying to have a life outside of school.

While sometimes I have found myself wishing I had a university life more closer to Baechler’s, I think I’ve gained a certain skill set that I’m not sure I would have if I had had the “university town” experience and was surrounded by students all the time. Going to a large commuter campus where it is easy to feel like you’re just a number, I had to find my own sense of community, which I did by writing for my student newspaper. When I didn’t feel engaged with the university, I had to engage myself, and I think that more closely parallels what life post-university is like.