See community through commuters’ eyes

The word “community” is thrown around a lot on the John Brown University campus. Students go to chapel to foster a sense of spiritual community; they eat in the cafeteria to spend time building communal relationships, and professors work to foster educational communities.

Many students choose the University because of the spirit of community they experience firsthand during a visit day.

But community looks different on an individual level. For students who choose not to live on campus, known as commuter students, the sense of community may be very different.

Steve Beers, director of student development, said commuter students can be divided into several different categories.

Some students in degree completion programs spend their time taking classes solely on the University’s satellite campuses or earn degrees online and do not step foot on the main campus until graduation.

Others in graduate school or non-traditional students in the traditional program are not required to live on campus either, although some may choose to live in West Twin Springs, the University-owned apartments.

“By virtue of their stage in life, it is not advisable for them to live on campus,” Beers explained. He went on to describe why a mother may not find dorm life the most appealing option.

Within the traditional undergraduate program, Beers estimated that around 70 percent of students live on campus. Students that live off-campus either meet the upperclassman exemption requirements set forth by the school, or they live with an approved faculty or staff member or at home with family.

Though Beers said even students who live in West Twin Springs are technically considered commuters by Student Development, he also distinguished between upperclassmen who have established their identities and relationships on campus and students who simply live with family.

“This set is potentially the most at risk,” he admitted. “We celebrate life of community… think about how much of your relationship building takes place after 5:00 p.m. or over the weekends.”

Beers said there was no limit on how far away students could live if they are living with family. Technically speaking, a student could drive to and from Tulsa, Okla. each day. Gas money is an extra expense, however.

Many students choose to live off campus to save money.

“A lot of students’ parents are paying for school anyways,” Beers said, “If you have the opportunity to live with them and save money, why not?”

Despite the initial risks, Beers added that many students live off campus successfully for much of their University career. Kelsey Daugherty, president of the student government association, is from Siloam Springs and lives with family. Groups of local students often bond over their shared commuter statuses.

For both Victoria Bennett and Lynette McClarty, the experience of commuting has proved an overwhelmingly positive one.

Bennett, a senior biology major, never seriously considered living on campus. While she had thought about attending college, it remained an abstract idea in her mind until she applied to the University her senior year of high school. When deciding to attend, she made a promise to herself that she would not take out any student loans.

Her determined financial efficiency, coupled with her conservative background and her immediate family living in Fayetteville, Ark. helped Bennett to decide to remain at home during the following four years.

“Overall, JBU has been awesome,” Bennett said. “I never really felt like I had the choice to live on campus…. If I’d had the finances, I would have absolutely stayed on campus, but I didn’t.”

Bennett experienced her own unique challenges during her time at school, such as where to hang out in between classes, establishing relationships outside of class and attending events at night. Bennett credits the Honors Scholars Program for coming along beside her, along with many other people.

When applying to the program, Bennett expressed her concerns to Brad Gambill, then the Honors Scholars Program director, who reassured her that she could definitely be successful at the institution as a commuter.

“Being in honors has been so beneficial,” Bennett described. “Most of my friends are in honors. I’ve been an honors mentor, done colloquiums, taken classes, been on executive council and gone to conferences. I’m getting a lot more exposure than I got earlier on.”

McClarty, a junior, lived on campus for the first three semesters but then decided to move in with librarian Beckie Peden to save money. This time on campus allowed her to devote more time to building relationships than Bennett initially experienced.

“By the time I moved off campus, most of my close friendships had already formed,” McClarty said. “It does take more effort to keep up with my friends, but it’s worth it. Sadly, a few of my friendships have fallen by the wayside, but I think that happens to everyone, whether they live on campus or not.”

Bennett has also been actively involved in the school’s freshman orientation process. When she attended orientation her first year, there were no special events for commuter students; while other students were unpacking and chatting away in their dorms, Bennett had nothing to do. However, after expressing her concerns to them, the University worked to reach out to this particular group of students during their first few days on campus.

Bennett expressed how it all came down to being intentional, or sensitive, as McClarty put it. Bennett said that the school needed, and still needs to be intentional with this particular group of students, just as she has to be more intentional about keeping relationships with those on campus.

She said its what makes the 40-minute drive each morning worth it.

While the school has not hired a person to work specifically with commuters, Beers and Bennett tossed around the idea of such a role. Both agreed that it might prove a worthwhile venture, but Beers cautioned that the situation is somewhat of a Catch 22.

“Commuters have been on our hearts and minds for many years,” Beers explained. “But we need to make sure that the investment would work. Our population is not big enough to provide a specific point person at this time.”

Bennett concluded that the position would not necessarily need to be a full-time, paid one. “It would actually be really valuable to have an upperclassman in that role,” she said. “It would be nice to have someone who understands our specific challenges.”