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Inside the Commuter Experience

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29,449 undergraduate students were enrolled in the fall 2021 quarter at UCI, with 12,586 of these students living in housing communities and 57% of undergraduate commuter students making up the rest of the undergraduate population.

According to data provided by Director of Student Housing Timothy Trevan to the New University, the breakdown of students living in housing communities was 5,001 freshmen, 2,531 sophomores, 2,956 juniors and 2,098 seniors.

“The percent[age] of students living on campus has increased over the last six years as [UCI] has added the Mesa Towers, Middle Earth Towers and ACC’s Plaza Verde apartments,” Trevan said.

The data showed that a total of 16,863 undergraduate students did not live in housing communities during the fall 2021 quarter. The New University spoke with several commuter students to learn more about their experiences.

First year English student Elaine Vinh has enjoyed the independence afforded by commuting, but she also expressed difficulty meeting her peers. 

“The challenges I’ve faced are communicating with people who are on campus and finding the right classes so [that] driving back and forth [from campus] would be more convenient,” Vinh said. “I am working on talking to more people when I am on campus. Being a commuter has been challenging, but it’s made me learn that I have to put in at least some effort if I want to create close relationships with others.”

Vinh noted that she has “more freedom to come and go whenever [she] please[s],” but she has also found it harder to create and maintain relationships with her peers. This challenge has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed Vinh’s perception of UCI from a default hang-out spot to “a place to be careful about.”

Vinh has a few suggestions for potential commuter students.

“I think [more] spaces [like the Commuter Lounge] that have accessible things like outlets, chargers, lockers and [areas] to relax would improve the commuter experience,” Vinh said. “I would advise [incoming commuter students] to try and go to clubs after classes or make friends in class, even if you’re just going to go home at the end of the day.”

First year English student Claire Nelson also has schedule-focused suggestions for future commuter students.

“Factor in commute times when planning your schedules,” Nelson said. “Since I have to drive 40 minutes to get to campus, I’ve worked on scheduling classes later in the day so I don’t have to wake up earlier. I’ve also figured [out] that going to campus only a couple [of] days a week has reduced the overall strain of having to commute.”

Nelson has found it more difficult to make friends because she does not live in the dorms; however, she has worked around this by using social media and talking to classmates.

“I think it would be a good idea to open up more commuter-specific events or online platforms, such as a Discord server,” Nelson said. “Making it easier for commuters to actually communicate outside of school could help them plan meet-ups if they wanted to hang out with other commuters, [as could] opening up other opportunities for them to meet up while on campus.”

COVID-19 has not significantly impacted Nelson’s experience as a commuter.

“Honestly, it’s probably easier to commute with the pandemic going on, especially since I don’t have to worry about whether roommates are being COVID-safe or how I would quarantine if I were to get sick. I can just stay at home,” Nelson said.

Aside from the challenge of planning a convenient schedule, she enjoys living at home and commuting.

“As an introvert, I need my own personal quiet space to get my energy back after socializing with people, and staying at home has been great for that. Plus, I get to stay with my cat,” Nelson said. “So far, commuting has been a great decision for me. I still get to experience college, but at the end of the day, it’s nice to be able to come home and relax in the quiet of my own room.”

Like Nelson, first year film and media studies student Elaine Cha found commuting difficult at first but has learned to adapt to it.

“As a commuter student, my time at college is a lot different than a typical college student’s experience,” Cha said. “The hardest part about commuting is accepting the fact that my college experience will not be the same as the other students I see on YouTube who film their move-in day vlogs, or TikTokers who get to film cute and fun videos with their roommates or all the characters in movies I’ve watched since I was younger.”

Cha mentioned “feeling like [she was not] even a part of the student body at all,” but accepting her college experience for what it is has made the transition easier for her.

“Commuting to school makes socializing a lot more difficult and less accessible, especially during a pandemic, but it really is what you make it,” Cha said. “Putting yourself out there, even if it means putting in a little extra effort, pays off in the end. As much as I hated being [a] commuter student at first, I’ve grown to appreciate it, especially since it has taught me to enjoy my alone time. I’ve learned to find beauty in the mundane and in the small things.”

She also stressed the importance of not letting others’ expectations detract from her experience, advising incoming commuter students to “focus on [themselves].”

“The moment you let other people and their experiences affect your expectations of the college experience, you will find it hard to even enjoy college at all. Dealing with [the fear of missing out] is hard, but not letting that get to you becomes so freeing,” Cha said. “Especially if [commuting] was a decision [made] for financial reasons, it’s so important to see this as just a part of your journey to something greater. College is honestly making the most out of what it is worth, and if your journey is different from someone else’s, that is completely fine as well.”

The New University reached out to ASUCI Commuter Student Support Commissioner Valerie Nguyen to find out more about commuter-centered initiatives.

“My commission and I have primarily worked on creating initiatives to help commuter students socialize and get to know each other on campus,” Nguyen said. “This has involved collaborating with International Student Advocacy, STEAM and Transfer Student Support Commissions. We have collaborated on events such as the Bob Ross Paint Night and Whine and Paint Night.”

She noted that although those events were successful, it has been difficult “transitioning back in-person for commuter students as schedules fluctuate and the uncertainty of COVID-19 continues.”

“My commission has been working to help build the commuter community. We recently released a survey about commuter needs and noticed that many students expressed the desire to get to know other commuters as well as the campus better. For this reason, we have focused on creating social events to help gather and encourage students to stay on campus and socialize,” Nguyen said.

The New University also reached out to UCI Student Center & Event Services Director Amy Schulz, who helped to oversee the opening of the Commuter Lounge during the fall 2021 quarter.

“While I don’t have specific usage numbers, I can say we have seen the students using the [Commuter Lounge] and we know the refrigerator has been a popular resource for students. The Student Center is dedicated to assisting all UCI students and we do our best to provide services and resources that will benefit them all,” Schulz said.

Chrissy Park is a Campus News Intern for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at chrip10@uci.edu.