Going the distance: Life as a commuter student

In her second year, recent graduate Ariela Karmel moved from her on-campus dorm room to a suite in East Vancouver. There were a lot of reasons for moving — cheaper rent, better lodging and more independence. But that also meant that Karmel was now a commuter — one of tens of thousands of UBC students who spend hours coming to and from campus every day. In Karmel’s case, that meant an average of 90 minutes daily in transit. Suddenly, her relationship with campus began to change. Karmel had less time to socialize, go to events on campus or participate in campus life. The place that had been home in first year was now just school. “I didn’t feel motivation to do anything,” said Karmel. “Because once I was done with class it would be 5 p.m., and I would have been at school since 9:30 a.m., and I just wanted to get home.” “The way I feel about campus changed completely the moment I moved off.” It’s the commuter effect. The longer the commute into UBC is, the less time you have for studying, socializing, and participating in campus life — and it’s only getting harder. A Complete Community: According to UBC’s 2009 Student Housing Demand Study, 75 per cent of UBC students cited a “sense of engagement and connectedness with the university” as a reason for wanting on or close to campus. In 2011, the Board of Governor’s adopted Policy 9, aiming to provide a total of around 15,000 units of housing to “support the University’s continuing transition from a commuter campus to a more complete university community”. As reported by The Ubyssey in 2017, UBC is truly limited in what it can do — let alone what it can afford to do — to mitigate the damage of Canada’s most expensive real estate market on the university.

And as Vancouver’s housing woes only worsen, the dream of an integrated campus community only seems farther off. “As time goes on, it’s more and more difficult for students to live off campus,” said Andrew Parr, managing director of student housing. “Commute times are increasing, traffic is worse and the cost of living in Vancouver is becoming unsustainable. “We need to do things to make their experience as positive as possible.” In the meantime, the time students sink into Translink means commuters often face hard choices about when they can afford to socialize, study, and take part in campus life —- and that creates consequences for UBC as much as it does for commuters.

Transitioning: “UBC Vancouver is transitioning from a commuter campus to a sustainable campus community.” UBC’s 2009 Student Housing Demand Study opens on a bold note. It recognizes that the appeal of living on campus is massive: students cite advantages ranging from easier access to library services to engagement in the campus community — and UBC has taken this to heart. “We’ve built nearly 3,500 new beds since 2011,” said Parr. “We’ve grown our inventory by 43% to ... recognize that the opportunities on campus are so much greater for students in terms of their academic and social engagement and connection to the institution and just overall experience.” But in the next 30 pages of the comprehensive report, the challenge becomes more clear. With a growing pool of students and a shrinking affordable housing market in Vancouver, the supply of student housing can’t match the demand.

“I haven’t checked my place in line in months because I’m just scared,” confessed third-year student Bridget Berner. Berner is one of over 6,000 students with their names far down the queue for on-campus housing.

The biggest single determinant for a student wanting to live on campus identified in the study — even more so than living closer to campus — was affordability, cited by 39 per cent of students. Despite recent rent increases, UBC dorms remain significantly cheaper than housing in neighborhouring areas. That means for commuters wanting to move close to UBC, it can be campus or bust. “I would love to be here,” said Berner. “I have a lot of pride in going to UBC. “I would love to just be on campus — it just doesn’t work out.” Making it Home: Wilson Hsu is a third-year mechanical engineering student. In his first year, his day unfolded the same way: he boarded his bus from Oakridge, went to class, and then returned straight home. Grappling with the shock of the transition from high school — and sinking up to two hours daily into his commute — Hsu didn’t participate in many extracurriculars, nor did he feel home at UBC. “It really took a toll,” said Hsu. “I didn’t really know how much time commuting took — I just wanted to go home.” In the 2017 Academic Experience survey, 21 per cent of students reported that they didn’t feel a sense of belonging on campus. With their daily schedules dictated by Translink, many commuters simply don’t have the time to spend at UBC beyond their classes. For first years in particular, this can lead to a sense of separation from the greater UBC community. “When you’re off campus, the only people you meet are the people you go to class with,” said Karmel. “On Res, I felt like I was going out and spending time with people every night, because why wouldn’t you? There was always someone there.” “UBC creates a community for people living on res, but not commuters,” argues Hsu. “People on Res get more invitations to networking invites, to parties, and they’re not obligated to check their schedule and leave early.” For commuters, barriers to socializing or participating in campus events are often a matter of getting home. While the 99 B-line runs late, most other major bus lines — the 41, the 25, the 4, and the 49 — end their service around midnight. That means meeting friends at Koerner’s for a drink or attending a club meeting both become logistical nightmares. “When my friends are making plans, they’ll sometimes say ‘Let’s meet at the Tank in about 15.’” said second-year theatre student Matthew Rhodes, referring to the Kitsilano bar. “For me, it’s not 15 minutes to the Coppertank. It’s a full hour to and from the Tank.” Rhodes, who commutes from West Vancouver, says that most buses returning home stop running around 1 AM. Spending any time on campus beyond classes means a late return home. “Even in first year, we sort of had to sit down and have discussions like ‘I’m not going to be getting home until 10:30 or 11 most nights,’” said Rhodes. “ Because that’s rehearsal —that’s being social with my friends on the weekend.” It’s not just students facing the time crunch. Professor Juliet O’Brien is an undergraduate French lecturer and advisor. She says that, like students, many faculty members are pushed farther from campus by Vancouver’s pricey real estate. “Anyone who wants kids, or wants to do gardening, or have a sizeable home — they have to move really far out,” said O’Brien. Just as students struggle to balance the commute and social life on campus, O’Brien says that faculty struggle to organize conferences, workshops, and discussions that are key to academic development — stifling UBC’s academic life. “If you want to have research seminars or any kind of intellectual life on campus, it’s really hard to get them [faculty] to stay here after teaching,” said O’Brien. “They have to get home, pick up the kids, and cook dinner.” “And it’s worse for students, because they’ve got schoolwork on top of all that.”

Two Sides, Same Story:

The commuter effect goes well beyond social life. The lack of a community on campus and the sheer logistical challenge of getting to school can seriously impact a student’s academic performance — something UBC is already trying to tackle. Robbie Morrison is the associate director of first year experience and student engagement. He says that students doing well socially is often a prerequisite for academic success — especially in their first years at UBC. “We know that when they [students] build community, make friends and feel a part of this place, they’re likely to be more successful in their first year and have a higher retention rate into their second year,” said Morrison. Morrison draws this information from his work with the Jumpstart program, noting that students “are more likely to be academically successful in their first year if they attend Jumpstart than students that haven’t.” Generally, a healthy social life often translates into a healthy academic one. "I feel like when I'm doing well socially and mentally, I do better academically,” said Karmel. “There's a connection between the two." Morrison currently helps direct the Collegia program. Collegia’s goal is to give first-year commuters a dedicated community space where students can study, chat, and eat between classes — recognizing that doing well academically often necessitates doing well socially and mentally. “When they arrive on campus, especially in their first year, where do you go?,” said Morrison “For resident students, there’s opportunities to have places to go back to and connect with friends in those times in between classes.

“For commuter students, that’s much harder.” Going the Distance: Beyond the connection between social and academic success, commuters struggle with a much more concrete problem: making it on and off of campus.

“On residence, I feel you had to go out of your way to be late or to miss a class,” said Karmel. “Off Res, I found myself forcing myself to go to class, counting the classes I missed like ‘Oh, I have to go today, I already missed earlier this week’”.

Whether it’s a missed bus, an accident or a road closure, commuters are often at the mercy of traffic — and can miss or be late to classes as a result. “Missing a bus means you have to add another half hour to your commute,” said Rhodes. “There was one time when the Lionsgate bridge shut down, and it meant that I was an hour late for one of my classes. “Luckily I had a really understanding prof.” The commute can even force students to decrease their course load. Berner commutes an average of two and a half hours each way from Mission. Those five daily hours of commuting means she can’t manage the demands of a full course load. “I tried taking five courses, and I failed one of them, which was hard because I took five classes when I was at UBC Okanagan,” she explained. “I realized it’s not because I can’t do it — it's because I’m commuting stupid amounts each day to even get to school.” It’s not just the number of courses that’s capped: limited bus schedules and long commute times means that commuters are often boxed out of taking morning or evening classes. “I took History 339 last semester, but it was a 9:30 a.m. class,” said Berner “I had to wake up at 5 a.m. just to make it. My commute was around 3 hours every day. “It’s a bit disheartening, because there are courses I would love to be a part of but I just can't make to class.”

Sleep: There are plenty of commuter students who balance academic coursework with their commutes, of course. But for many of them, that means making a big sacrifice: sleep. As soon as Hsu boards the 41, he shuffles to the back and promptly falls asleep. “I need to sleep at some time or another,” said Hsu. “If It’s not the bus, it would be during class.” For students like Hsu, who balance a full course load and extracurriculars with the demand of the commute, sleep becomes the de facto loser. Commuters interviewed for this article universally reported sleeping around 6 or less hours per night. After a long night of work, many of them said they often couldn’t even make it to the next day’s classes. “First year was a lot of ‘oh, I have three papers due this week,’” said Rhodes. “I had to stay up till 2, and then get up for that 8 o’clock class.

“As a long distance transit student, you always have to sacrifice sleep.” During exam season, some commuters have even more spartan sleep patterns. “During finals week, you get on the 258 and it’s like the night bus in Harry Potter,” commented Rhodes. Hsu says that he and many engineers often don’t even make it home from campus, instead using their 24/7 access to sleep on couches in the engineering buildings. “For one month at a time, I was basically living at school.” said Hsu. “I wasn’t really sure what time I was waking up, what time I was sleeping.” UBC’s response to the exam crunch period is the commuter hostel in Walter Gage Residence, which offers 16 dorms to commuters for a nightly fee of $35. But interviewed commuters say the hostel can become quickly overbooked during exam season — and fluctuating demand means there’s no plan to expand it. “The vast majority of the time, it runs at 60 per cent capacity— it’s only the exam period when it becomes more full,” explained Parr.

“It’s difficult to take away the bed of a student that lives here on a yearly basis to give it to a student who wants it for a two day exam period.” In an ideal world, many students who commute long distance would love to live on campus. But as seen in the slow movement of housing strategies, that’s easier said than done. Making it Work: The crucial question, at the end, is how far — and how long — is too much? “I don't think by living off campus you can't necessarily have a good experience socially, but I think that is dependent on how far you are,” said Karmel. “It's living off campus at such a great distance that makes it so negative.” Every student interviewed for this article had a markedly different community experience. Rhodes found a community via his involvement in theatre on campus. Hsu found his through the engineering program. Karmel, after moving closer to campus, felt a significant improvement in her social engagement. But what most commuters agreed with was that the further they were from campus, the more distant they felt from UBC — both as an institution, and a community “I feel like an engineer — but I don’t really know what it means to be a ‘UBC student’” said Hsu. “For people commuting to class, I don’t think there’s a real community.”