by Dawson Vosburg
College life is stressful. Every student knows it. But there are factors that can exacerbate college’s difficulties and make elusive its more enjoyable aspects. The idealized life of a college student always features resident students, living a protected life away from the day-to-day realities of feeding yourself and others, long commutes, and balancing work and life. Instead, this idealized college student works maybe for a bit of extra cash, stays up late with goofy dorm hall friends, and rolls out of bed five minutes or so before class. This image can obscure the experience of the single parent that drives upwards of 50 minutes (of course, with traffic as a constant variable) to make it to an 8 a.m. class, and must deal with the realities of rent, groceries, and gas bills. It doesn’t account for the student who is the first in their family to go to college, and who can only afford to go if they live at home with their parents and use the U-Pass—but still must go two trains and a bus to arrive on campus. According to the university, around 53 percent of North Parkers commute here every day—the imagined prototypical college student may be more the exception than the rule.
I have not even had the kinds of extra-difficult circumstances I described above like some commuters I have spoken to. I have a car, I don’t have kids, I’m a white man, I have not struggled academically, and I come from a pretty well-off family. And still, the realities of being a commuter student at North Park have been enough for me to consider calling it quits nearly every semester. For instance, I survive with my campus job money. It isn’t pocket change—it’s how I feed myself. But consistently, especially if the job is funded by the Student Government, I am not paid well into the semester—in the fall, it is typically not until midterms. This is not the fault of SGA, but it seems that there has not been a concerted effort to ensure that those who depend on their campus work for basic subsistence can be paid in a timely manner. Or, for that matter, at all during the month of January.
So, some might suggest, perhaps an off-campus job would be an improvement? Some commuters are able to manage this, which I look upon in utter admiration. Off-campus jobs nearly always require workers to have shifts of at least 6 hours—which can be very difficult with a college class schedule. This usually means that these commuters, in order to make ends meet, work late into the night or all weekend. For instance, working at Starbucks and taking a full 16 hour class schedule (as I attempted to do my first semester at North Park) can mean class five days a week followed up by eight hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday to pull in a monthly income under $700. In order to make more than that, a commuter may have to do both the late nights and weekends, sacrificing sleep, sanity, and anything like a balanced social life. There are students in your classes right now who do this week in, week out.
It’s more than just money that get commuters down: transportation, by nature of commuting, is a pressing issue. Though North Park is not as close as it could be to an L stop, it’s reasonably close, and the provision of a U-Pass this year was a much-needed relief for CTA commuters. However, for many, it simply isn’t feasible to spend the hour-plus on multiple trains and buses to arrive at North Park in time for class, so if they’re lucky and can afford it, commuters also use a car. But this does not necessarily improve the commuter’s situation: a parking pass is a whopping $200, which many commuters just can’t drop at a moment’s notice. So most car commuters take one risk or another: park on the streets and risk your timeliness to class based on what parking is available, or park in a student lot with no sticker and risk a ticket. As a driving commuter without a parking sticker, it is extremely common (yet frustratingly unpredictable) to arrive in front of campus well in advance of class time, and yet spend enough time driving around searching for a spot and subsequently walking an unpredictable distance to arrive in class more than ten minutes tardy.
Beyond the logistical difficulties of commuting, as taxing as they can be, loneliness makes commuting a struggle above all. Every commuter I talked to in preparation for this story, including some of our editorial staff, mentioned this feeling of disconnect from what’s going on at North Park. School events vary in their breadth of advertisement, but many of them happen at times that would require another trip out to campus, and often a very late end time. Informal social gatherings, however, are much more elusive: how do you make friends as a commuter without a space like a dorm, without somewhere to sit around and watch a movie, to have the sidetracked conversations that make college about more than collecting knowledge?
I don’t think North Park has any intention of malice in these commuter difficulties—lots of efforts have been made to make commuter life better, for which the university should be commended. The problem lies with a frequent disconnect between these efforts and commuters’ actual needs, challenges, and hopes for their college experience. We only want to be able to arrive at school on time, to be able to pay our bills, and to make a few friends in this brief time of life. There’s a broad variety of ways to address these issues, but the first step is to start having the conversation out in the open in the first place.