Marlen Cruz has taken on many roles in her scant 20-some years. First-generation American. First-generation college student. And: a commuter student.
“My parents live five minutes away from campus. They were like, ‘There’s no way you’re living on campus,’” she relays, laughing.
A public health science major who was in the Media, Self and Society Scholars program, Cruz says she was unhappy at first to not live on campus. “But then I realized, I liked going home and seeing my parents,” she says. The oldest of three, she is also close to her siblings and says commuting from home allowed her to keep tabs on them.
Last fall, we followed Cruz for a few hours over two days to get a sense of what life is like for a commuter student at the University of Maryland (UMD). It’s actually a role Cruz no longer has: In December, she graduated from college, after only two and a half years.
8:45 a.m. Awaiting the start of class
Cruz sits in a hallway in the School of Public Health (SPH), waiting for class to begin.
As a senior finishing up her last class before graduation, Cruz’s schedule on campus was much lighter this past fall than when she first started at UMD. Freshman year consisted of long days Monday through Friday. “I started around 8 a.m. with class, and I’d be here until later in the afternoon for a public health history class,” she recalls.
Another challenge Cruz faced as a commuter student was finding convenient times to work with her peers on group projects. Most students had conflicts on weeknights and didn’t want to meet on Saturdays. Cruz often found herself driving to campus on Sundays to work on group assignments.
9 a.m. First class of the day
Cruz sits in the classroom of her FMSC 460: Violence in Families class.
The Media, Self and Society Scholars alum came to the university with 60 college credits. Other than in her UNIV100 class, a first-year course requirement, and her Scholars colloquium, the majority of her classmates were upperclassmen. “I was the one freshman sitting in a 300- or 400-level course. College Park Scholars allowed me to be around people my own age who were experiencing the university for the first time, too,” Cruz says.
11:00 a.m. Downtime between classes
Cruz works on homework in SPH’s Collaboratorium space.
The recent grad says life as a commuter was routine: “I knew what time I needed to get to campus, I knew how long it would take me to walk from the parking lot to class, and since I didn’t live on campus, I knew where I was going to spend my time between classes.” The Collaboratorium was among the places Cruz could be found between classes. Other locations included the tables on the bottom floor of the School of Public Health, the Quantum Café in the Physical Sciences Complex; Stamp Student Union; and Edward St. John Learning & Teaching Center.
11:20 a.m. Grabbing a snack
Cruz stops at the North Convenience Shop in the Cambridge Community to buy a drink.
A definite benefit of being a commuter? “Home food is great!” Cruz says, noting that eating in the dining halls—which is possible for commuters to do—hadn’t been cost-effective for her. Instead, she typically brought snacks and lunch from home to tide her through the day. Places like Stamp Student Union and the North Convenience Shop also offer options for buying food.
11:30 a.m. Work at Scholars
Cruz heads to the College Park Scholars central office in Cumberland Hall, where she worked part time.
Commuters still have the opportunity to take advantage of the “living” aspect of Scholars’ living–learning program. Even if they do not live in the residence halls, all Scholars students have access to the first floor of the residence hall where their program office is located, to interact with other students from their programs and meet with their program faculty. Commuters can also enter the Cambridge Community Center during the day (and with swipe cards in the evenings and on Sundays), where Scholars colloquia, as well as certain Scholars events, are typically held.
12:00 p.m. Settling in for her shift
Cruz settles in at the student worker desk in the Scholars Central office, where she answered the phone and performed administrative jobs as needed.
Cruz credits College Park Scholars with enhancing her college experience. “Being in Scholars gave me an immediate community even as a commuter,” she says. But knowing some of the campus rules still took her time. It took Cruz a few weeks before she realized that students who drove to campus were also allowed to ride the university buses. She also learned that campus parking restrictions eased after 4 p.m., allowing her to park in more lots when she had to stay late on campus.
12:45 p.m. Connections with staff
Cruz chats with Scholars Assistant Director Brent Hernandez.
Cruz made a particular effort to get involved in Scholars to ensure she would get to know other students, as well as staff. Scholars gave her many opportunities to do so. She became a peer mentor her second year, volunteered as a Scholars ambassador to show prospective students of color “that people who looked like them were succeeding” and represented fellow commuters on the Scholars student advisory board. She also participated in Real Talk, a dialogue group focusing on the experiences and needs of Scholars students of color.
1:30 p.m. Time for the next class
Cruz packs up her backpack after her student worker shift ends.
“When I first came into Scholars, there wasn’t an obvious commuter presence here,” Cruz observes. “You knew there were commuter students in Scholars but you rarely had interactions with them because they were split across all 12 programs.”
During her time as a Scholar, Cruz worked with some of her commuter peers and Associate Director Dave Eubanks to build a better support network for commuter students in Scholars. Today, commuter students in Scholars have a built-in support system from the day they step foot on campus. Scholars commuter students have their own group chat and are represented on the Scholars Student Advisory Board. They also meet other commuters at a Q&A session on the same day that other first-year Scholars students move into their residence halls.
At the university level, Transfer and Off-Campus Student Life hosts a breakfast for all commuting Terps every first Wednesday in Stamp Student Union.
1:45 p.m. Heading out
Cruz heads off to her 2 p.m. class, located across campus.
“Originally, you might feel overwhelmed as a commuter,” Cruz says. “You might feel like everyone else is experiencing campus in different ways because they’re living on campus and have other people to connect to. But you have to keep in mind you’re not the only commuting student. And at some point, this campus will feel as small as it first felt large.”
About the author:
Mayu Mishina joined College Park Scholars in January 2018 as assistant director in charge of communications. In this role, she oversees overall communications strategy and messaging and coordinates with staff across the 12 Scholars program to tell the College Park Scholars story. Outside of work, Mayu is an accomplished tiger mom and a middling cello player.