the complicated lifestyle of commuting students

what it's like being a commuter student in pittsburgh

by zoe esperseth

While residential college students are able to enjoy a variety of resources, John Bedortha’s college experience is defined by hours of long bus rides, 12-hour days, and lack of engagement, because he is a commuter student.

Sang Tran, a student at Duquesne University, is both a commuter and works for the Duquesne commuter community and can see firsthand the students who must pay hundreds for parking each semester, spend hours a day getting to and from school, and maintaining jobs.

 

University of Pittsburgh students are a part of the largest university in the Pittsburgh area, but students like Zach Davis still come face-to-face with parking trouble and lack of social connections on campus.

“Sometimes I’ll have 2-5 hour breaks in between with no place to go. I can’t nap, I can’t change, I can’t really relax, I’m constantly in public,” Bedortha said.

Bedortha, Tran, and Davis are part of the sizable commuter population who face struggles in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

They constantly face issues that do not affect residential students, like the costs of transportation, parking, and finding ways to interact with other students and participate in the diverse activities offered by universities that residential students are able to easily take advantage of.

According to a report authored by Barbara Jacoby for the Association for the Study of Higher Education, commuter students make up over 80 percent of today’s college students. This statistic accounts for the comparison between students who live in University-owned housing versus students who do not live in University-owned housing systems. But while this percentage may seem staggering, Jacoby says that university institutions are still producing a system that is catered to the lifestyle of a residential student.

“Too often, it has been assumed erroneously that what has worked for residential students will serve commuter students equally well. More discouragingly, some institutions still barely acknowledge the presence of their commuter students,” Jacoby wrote in the study.

The lifestyle of a commuter is often ruled by a tight schedule, as the ability to relax or spend time in a living space is impossible. Many universities will recommend a tight class schedule for commuters to eliminate downtime and increase campus productivity. This academic style can often lead to stress and negatively impact the health of a commuter.

Commuter Stress

Hallie Stotsky is the Stress Free-Zone coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh. This program exists for all students in an attempt to eliminate stress in an academic environment. Stotsky recognizes the dangers of being overstressed while pursuing a degree.

“Troubles with sleep, struggles in relationships, and trouble staying focused couples with anxiety. Bad eating habits and overall health declines are what we most commonly hear or see from students.

Bedortha is all too familiar with the physical and emotional stress associated with a hectic commuter lifestyle. A junior at Point Park University, Bedortha gets to campus by way of public transportation from Lawrenceville. His busiest days at the University are Thursdays, and he often wakes up at 7a.m. in order to fulfill the needs of the day.

“Thursdays I have a radio show in the morning, 9 to 11, so I take the bus down, record my show, then I usually have to leave that early to get out to Squirrel Hill for a weekly appointment and then right after that I have to take the bus back downtown so I can go to class. I’m getting up at 7 a.m. and not getting back until 10 p.m.,” Bedortha said.

While he acknowledges that there are benefits to not being a residential student, including the money saved and being able to live in the community he loves, Bedortha is adamant that the commuter lifestyle is negatively impactful on the college experience.

“I have to pay five dollars out of pocket every day to take the bus, I have to stay downtown until all of my classes are done for the day. I have to plan ahead a lot, be up usually two hours before my first class, and even then, its sometimes not enough.”

                                                                                                                                 Not only does commuting take a monetary and mental health toll on                                                                                                                                   Bedortha, but he also recognizes that the struggles of a commuter,                                                                                                                                       often carry over into academic life.

                                                                                                                                  “It’s more difficult to stay in an academic mindset when going home                                                                                                                                    because there’s such a disconnect. I have to leave campus, wait at                                                                                                                                        the bus stop, take the bus, walk to my apartment, and then for me                                                                                                                                        that’s the end of the day and I’m exhausted.” 

                                                                                                                                  Point Park University is home to 3,196 undergraduate students,                                                                                                                                              according to the Common Set Data for the 2018-2019 school year.                                                                                                                                        According to that data, 67% of those students live off-campus or                                                                                                                                          commute.

                                                                                                                                 The student fact book at Point Park says that the university offers a                                                                                                                                       variety of lounges throughout campus and one specifically called the                                                                                                                                  “commuter lounge” that offers couches, tables, a microwave,                                                                                                                                                 vending machines, a TV, and a “coin operated” copy machine. 

                                                                                                                                “I can’t speak for everybody, but I had no idea there was a commuter                                                                                                                                   lounge. It’s almost like they don’t even want you to be in there                                                                                                                                               anyway,” Bedortha said.

Lack of Commuter Care

Point Park University Director of Student Life, Amanda

Anderson is one of few officials who oversee the

commuter student community. No offices exist at

Point Park University that are specifically dedicated

to commuter students.

 

“Most concerns are communicated through email

at studentlife@pointpark.edu and then addressed

as needed.  We also have a Commuter Resources

page that we check regularly for recommendations,”

Anderson said.

Although the commuter resources page exists on

the Point Park website and explains what is available

to commuter students, there is no way for students

to submit recommendations or complaints.

 

“There was a Director of Commuter Affairs at one

point (I think 7-10 years ago), but with a lack of

engagement or demand for services, that position

was restructured,” Anderson said.

 

Faith Williams is a Point Park junior who experiences many of the same challenges as Bedortha. Williams commutes by car from Penn Hills and recognizes that the monetary struggles of being a commuter often interfere with her education.

“Sometimes I have to make the decision on whether I can afford to park for the day. I have missed class because of that and it’s a huge disadvantage.”

Both Williams and Bedortha believe that professors are often sympathetic to

the plight of commuter students. While commuters are not given any

advantages when it comes to grades or assignments, understanding plays a key

role in day-to-day classroom life.

 

“It’s easy to assume all of your students live on campus. If or when it becomes

a problem, Point Park professors can be understanding. But it can be an

embarrassing conversation to have,” Williams said.

 

Having to explain the monetary and transportation struggle of being a commuter

is often a difficult topic to broach with a professor.

Transportation Setbacks

As to what they are doing to provide for commuter students, Amanda Anderson

says, “On-campus resources include lockers, bike parking, computer labs, a

commuter lounge, a number of microwaves around campus, etc. We also

offer free Port Authority Connect Cards in our office.” 

 

Port Authority Connect Cards allow people to load money onto their card account in order to use public transportation in the city of Pittsburgh. Point Park does not reimburse students for bus fare or pre-load money onto the cards.

 

“Our most common complaints are that we do not have parking on

campus and that we do not have a “free” bus fare.  A few other universities

in the area charge their students a transportation fee and have an

agreement with the Port Authority that allows those students to use

their student ID. We have been working with the Port Authority to explore

options for many years and it is our hope that, as they make

advancements in their riding software, it may open opportunities that

were previously unavailable,” Anderson said.

Bedortha argues that no actions are being taken by the university to

improve the lives of 67% of their students.

 

“They could incorporate bus-fair into tuition and partner with

Port Authority. They could make the commuter lounge better known.

They could have parking; they could reserve even a block of spaces

in one of the local garages. They could have better shuttle services.

There’s a lot that they could do that they just aren’t doing.”

 

Williams also laments that transportation is one aspect of commuter student life that is not addressed or assisted by the University.

“Paying for parking every day is a huge hassle if, and when I can find it. It’s not affordable for students at all.”

While the University does offer shuttle services and access to meal plans, Williams believes that these programs are not supportive enough to the entire Point Park community of commuters.

“They offer shuttles, which is nice if you live in those areas where the shuttle is going, otherwise you’re on your own. You can get a commuter plan for $500 to spend on campus food, but it's actually more beneficial to save the $500 and use it in restaurants downtown because of how overpriced the dining areas are,” Williams said.

The meal plan designated for commuters is also the designated

plan for those living in University housing complexes

(Boulevard Apartments). You can buy a plan in increments that

include the number of meals and a certain amount of flex dollars.

The highest cost plan includes unlimited meals and 150 flex dollars

and costs $3,580 per semester. The lowest cost plan 

includes a 30-meal plan with 200 flex dollars and costs $570 

per semester.

While many students who commute to Point Park face a variety

of issues every day there are still steps that the University has not

taken to improve the lives of their commuter student body.

“I believe the resources we have are “good enough” currently

but I would, of course, like to increase and improve offerings as

feedback is received and opportunities arise,” Anderson said.

 

Fueling Feedback

Duquesne University’s Common Set Data (2018-2019) shows that there are 6,013 undergraduate students attending and that 40% are commuters. Duquesne has multiple offices that deal directly with commuter students, including the Office of Commuter Affairs and the student-run Commuter Council.  The Commuter Council is a student-run organization that oversees the needs and life of commuter students at Duquesne. The Office of Commuter Affairs is staffed with both students and university officials that provides programs, resources, and assistance to the commuter student body.

“We try to keep everyone engaged and a part of the University. We make everyone go to events and try to help out with the community, and that keeps people mostly engaged,” says Sang Tran, who is the Vice President of Public Relations on the Commuter Council.

Tran and Dakota Stuyvesant, who is the Vice President of Programs on the Commuter Council, are a part of what they call the “Commuter Community” at Duquesne. Both students are dedicated to ensuring that commuter students feel like a part of the Duquesne community and that their needs are addressed. By serving on the commuter council, they ensure that enough funding is funneled into the needs of the Duquesne commuter; this includes activities for commuters, maintaining commuter specific areas and enacting any ideas or suggestions they get from students that would benefit the commuter community.

 

“We’re involved, commuter affairs and commuter council, with a lot

of things, especially with the commuter assistants. And all the

members of the commuter council are also commuter assistants,

it gives us better access to new students so we can talk to them,

we even bring a few of them down here (the commuter lounge) to

be one of the main people who stay down here,” Stuyvesant said.

Keeping commuter students engaged and part of the Duquesne

community is what motivated Tran and Stuyvesant to become

members of the Commuter Council and serve as Commuter

Assistants.

“We want people to fit in and be part of this family. So for them to

be a part of this family we have to basically reach out to them,

tell them ‘Hey, we have all this stuff for you guys, please come

and do it, it’s all free’,” Tran said.

By congregating in the commuter lounge and communication with

students, Tran and Stuyvesant are able to address the needs of

each commuter.

                                                                                                                                                   “We’ll usually talk with people in the lounge, who are                                                                                                                                                              usually here, about what works best for them when                                                                                                                                                                  planning events,” Stuyvesant said.

 

                                                                                                                                                   The Commuter Council hosts a variety of events for                                                                                                                                                                 commuter students, including PB&J Wednesday’s, in the                                                                                                                                                         hopes that commuter students will be able to come                                                                                                                                                                 together and still feel like they are a part of University life,                                                                                                                                                       even when they don’t live on campus. One of the annual                                                                                                                                                         events hosted by the Commuter offices is the Commuter                                                                                                                                                       pre-orientation that is held over the summer.

 

 

 

This event allows for incoming commuters to meet their future classmates and

Commuter Assistant, another program that pairs an incoming freshman or transfer

commuter student with a fellow commuter to guide them through the first year at Duquesne.

Much Needed Space

Point Park University has none of the offices offered by Duquesne to aid commuter students.

There are no commuter assistants or any department that specializes in promoting the

needs of commuter students. There is only one area on the Point Park campus that is given

the title of a commuter specific area (a one-room lounge), whereas Duquesne has a

vast area that is only accessible to commuter students (a lounge, kitchenette, quiet area,

computer lab, study room, and cafeteria resources.)

Laurie Gatz is a freshman at Duquesne who was put at ease by the pre-orientation

experience and was able to connect with her future friends.

 

“I felt like I was more involved in the group, and I liked everybody. Everyone was engaging and talking to you and wanting to know all about you,” Gatz said. 

Other resources that exist for Duquesne’s commuter students include

shuttle services that operate within the city area, as well as parking

options for students.

“If you live on the southside or in the North Hills, they also have shuttle

busses which I think is only $79 and basically you just know their route and

they’ll take you to school,” Tran said.

Parking is also easily accessible to commuter students who are able to pay

for a parking pass, either per semester or for the academic year.

 

“We have two garages on Locust and Forbes and then we have two

service level parking. There’s a lot of surface parking around Duquesne,

there’s one around red ring,” Tran and Stuyvesant said.

While both Stuyvesant and Tran are happy with the commuter

lifestyle they experience at Duquesne, they acknowledge that they

still face difficulties being commuter students.

                                                                                              “There’s also the additional clubs and organizations that hold their meetings at different                                                                                                   times or make it really difficult to come. Like Student Government Association holds                                                                                                         meetings on Sundays, which is really difficult for most commuters to attend, because we                                                                                                   usually work,” Stuyvesant said.

                                                                                               Tran agrees that there are always downsides to being a commuter.

                                                                                              “It keeps the schedule very tight. You have to get up early in the morning

                                                                                               usually to get some parking,” Tran said.

 

                                                                                              Patricia Swisher is in media relations at Duquesne, and she recognizes that an inclusive                                                                                                      learning environment is the key to enhancing any college students experience.

“Universities should ensure that commuter students are supported; that there are

programs and opportunities which foster a sense of belonging and inclusion

within the campus community; and that members of the campus community

advocate on behalf of commuter students,” Swisher said.

Majority Rules

The University of Pittsburgh is the largest college in the Pittsburgh area, and its main

campus is situated in Oakland. The university is an integral part of the surrounding

community, and many of its students are nestled close to the university within the

Oakland area. But even with a large group of students who live within walking

distance of the university, there is still a community of Pitt students who must travel

in order to get to class. The University of Pittsburgh main campus is home to 19,200

undergraduate students according to Common Set Data information. 58% percent

of those students live off-campus or commute.

According to the University of Pittsburgh’s commuter page on their website,

“Commuter Student Programs is here to support off-campus students, those

who live in the Pittsburgh area, as well as those who commute to campus. We

'recognize mastering how to navigate from home to campus is only a small part of commuting. We strive to foster a sense of community and personal growth among commuter students while providing resources, mentorship, and advocacy to assist students in becoming more actively involved on Pitt’s campus.” 

                                                                                                                  Zach Davis is a junior at Pitt and commutes from Delmont, which is about half                                                                                                                    an hour outside the city. He reflects that maintaining a job and commuting to                                                                                                                    school severely impacted his social interactions on campus.

                                                                                                                 “Friday’s were my busiest day because I worked and then had to go downtown                                                                                                                    to campus at night which sucked since like everyone is going around there to                                                                                                                      party. Plus Oakland is just really busy on Friday nights so parking was hard to                                                                                                                      find then,” Davis said.

                                                                                                                 While Pitt’s website displays that they offer events to commuter students                                                                                                                             starting out at the university, such as their Commuter Day orientation                                                                                                                                   program,  Davis argues that social connections and university engagement are                                                                                                                   difficult to find when living a commuter lifestyle.

                                                                                                                 “Gas is expensive, parking in the city is hard, making friends is harder.

                                                                                                                  I know the university tries, but it’s just harder to go to events because a lot of                                                                                                                       times they seem to be very last minute.”

Other resources available to Pitt commuter students, according to the University website, include a commuter lounge, locker rental availability, student parking permits, bike racks, and shuttle services. One of the most valuable resources offered by Pitt is access to free public transportation. Students are able to use their University ID’s as bus passes.

“Commuter rooms in the cathedral and commuter events plus the service desks are super helpful with any problems in general. If anything, they could maybe improve on being able to utilize the service desks digitally so that some simplistic problems could be resolved off campus,” Davis said.

The numbers show that there is a large community of students who

commute to their Pittsburgh Universities. All who experience many of the

same joys and barriers that come with being a commuter. While different

Universities have different programs, all must recognize the specific needs

of this large community that faces struggles every day in an attempt to

pursue their education.

Laurel Shearer commutes two miles from her home to Penn State's main

campus but finds that commuting often prevents having a social life similar

to that of a residential student.

Commuter Detachment

Penn State University's main campus is home to 40,363 undergraduate 

students, 65% of whom commute to school. This number includes

freshman Shearer, who commutes two miles from her parents’ home to

attend Penn State.

“I’m able to save a lot of money especially because I work and don’t have many bills or loans to pay. The only reason I’m staying home is because I wouldn’t be able to afford a loan for housing,” Shearer said.

Shearer’s commuting experience differs from that of students attending Pittsburgh universities, in that Penn State’s main campus is a community that is centered specifically around the university and it’s students, whereas Pittsburgh colleges simply exist within the city and allow for students to adapt to the city environment. Penn State life for Shearer can be both accommodating and restrictive.

“In a dorm, you can meet so many people and get to know them quickly and have a place to invite them to hang out. And then for me luckily my parents are committed to my independence but even with them having no restrictions it still feels somewhat inhibiting to my overall independence to live with them and my little siblings.”

                                                                                                             Parking is very accessible to Shearer, both for her academic time spent on                                                                                                                           campus and her time working.

                                                                                                            “I park in a really close lot to all my classes and luckily my drive to campus is                                                                                                                         about 10-15 minutes so it’s not a long time to get to where I need to be. Then I                                                                                                                   move my car to a downtown parking lot right next to my work at 4:30 and go into                                                                                                               work once I’ve moved it,” Shearer said.

                                                                                                             But while Shearer enjoys these advantages to commuting in an environment like                                                                                                                 that of Penn State main campus, she also feels the strain of a commuter lifestyle                                                                                                                 on her college experience.

 

“Overall I feel commuting affects social life above academics. If you want to go to a lot of parties and make a ton of friends and go to a lot of things/events on campus then commuting definitely makes that experience harder to achieve.”

 “I basically don’t go here. It feels like I’m just taking classes here, and it feels impossible to meet people or to make friends or to carry on relationships with people because you just live totally separate lives,” Bedortha said.

Each University is unique in its provisions given to commuter

students. While some schools recognize the needs of commuters,

some still fall short of providing adequate resources to what is often

the majority of their student body.

“They really have to look at their student body and see what their

needs are,” Stuyvesant said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keywords: Commuter, Students, University, Campus, Community, Parking, Pittsburgh, Transportation, Resources

 

Zoe Esperseth is a junior Mass Communications major at Point Park University. She has had articles published with the Point Park News Service, The Globe and The Flashlight. She hopes to pursue a career in marketing, sales or advertising.

Point Park University's website displays their offerings for commuter students. This page features information on the lounge and lockers.

One of the information page for Point Park commuters. Many of the embedded links displayed on this page no longer function. 

Parking options are few and far between for Point Park students. 

Point Park University's Common Set Data.

Meal options for Point Park students.

The Commuter Council main page for Duquesne University.

Duquesne University has the Office of Commuter Affairs to aid commuter students in any way they can.

The commuter lounge offers a variety of features for Duquesne commuter students.

The Duquesne University website informs commuters of options to improve their time on campus. 

A variety of programs are available for commuter students to stay engaged with the University.

The Office of Commuter Affairs resides in the commuter area and is always open to input from commuter students. 

The main commuter page on the University of Pittsburgh's website. 

Parking options for Pitt students.

The commuter lounge offers a number of different resources to students at Pitt. 

Free transportation is available to all Pitt students. 

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