New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

More Than Just Train Delays: What Being a Commuter Really Means

NYU commuters share how commuting affected their college experience socially, professionally and mentally, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Troy Kelley, a Tisch dance junior who also majors in computer science, spent strenuous hours on campus for his classes and rehearsals before campus shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak on March 11th. As a dance major, Kelley is required to be physically and mentally present each day, having class as early as 9 a.m. and finishing rehearsals as late as 10 p.m. Like most students, he had to manage his time wisely. But without the privilege of going back to his dorm or apartment in the vicinity of campus, Kelley had to face an 80-minute commute home to Stamford, Connecticut. 

“Commuting is my choice, but for me, it’s also the only rational option,” Kelley said. 

Troy Kelley would sometimes spend over 12 hours on campus for his classes and still face an 80 minute one-way commute to his home in Stamford, Connecticut. For Kelley, commuting was not just a choice, but the only financially feasible option after he wasn’t guaranteed a spot in budget-friendly housing. (Photo by Troy Kelley. Staff Illustration by Rachel Lee.)

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 87 percent of students in the United States are defined as commuter students. But because “commuter students” is defined as not living in university housing, the term does not differentiate between students who live close to and far from campus.

Kelley chose to commute to school following a conversation with NYU where he couldn’t be guaranteed a spot in budget-friendly housing. Though the housing application is open to all NYU students, Kelley said that paying a non-refundable deposit for the housing raffle wouldn’t have been worth it for him. While Kelley desired to live on or near campus, financially, it wasn’t a possibility. 

While NYU does offer resources for their commuters such as Commuter Lounges and the Commuter Student Council (CSC), Kelley believes more actions could be implemented to aid a commuter’s college experience and their personal health. 

“I would like to see the proper recognition of students who commute, and better resources to get in touch with others who might be in similar circumstances as you,” Kelley said. “Honestly just putting us in touch with each other in a more social way would be enough of a stepping stone for us to plan events ourselves.”

Andrea Serrano, a CAS junior majoring in psychology, lives with her family in Queens. Not only does she have the responsibility of a student to keep up with her rigorous academics — Serrano is on the pre-med track — but she also has responsibilities as a family member that include helping around the house and picking up her little brother from school. 

According to Scientific American, studies have shown that people can experience both physical and mental symptoms from the stress of commuting. Physical problems include pain, dizziness, exhaustion and severe sleep deprivation, while social consequences are not having time to pursue personal interests and to spend with family.

Due to her busy schedule, Serrano has no time to work on her physical health and do things like go to the gym. While living at home has its benefits, commuting detracts from her mental health greatly.

“I’ll come home, and they [my family] are here to reassure me. But, I feel like I don’t have a sense of privacy,” Serrano said. “I have a lack of independence that most people have at this age because I’m not accountable for just myself, I’m accountable for my family.”

Andrea Serrano lives with her family in Queens. The struggle to balance both the responsibility of being a student as well as caring for one’s family can extract a toll on the mental health of a commuter. (Photo by Andrea Serrano. Staff Illustration by Rachel Lee.)

Despite having family and friends to rely on both on and off campus, Serrano battles with the feeling of being excluded from a typical college experience. Her friends’ close physical proximity to each other on campus allowed them to make plans last minute or late at night, but because she was under an unspoken curfew placed by her parents due to trains being unreliable at night and the possible risk of her safety, she was left feeling lonely, a sentiment many students are experiencing now while practicing self-quarantine and social distancing. 

Of course undergraduate students weren’t the only ones that commuted. Graduate students also faced similar realities. Because graduate housing on-campus is limited, many graduate students rely on off-campus housing and commuting for their education.

Nirja Patel is a current Steinhardt graduate student from New Jersey who also completed her undergraduate at the same school. Patel has commuted every year besides her first-year as an undergraduate student where she lived in the dorms. As a commuter, Patel shared that she also felt lonely in the city because she wasn’t making as many friends or developing the friendships she already had. 

“I wasn’t on campus as much and didn’t get to hang out with them [my friends] often and make stronger bonds,” she said.

Nirja Patel used to commute from Secaucus, New Jersey before the COVID-19 outbreak. She started to become active in events put on by the Commuter Student Council after starting graduate school at Steinhardt. (Photo by Nirja Patel. Staff Illustration by Rachel Lee.)

Because of this, she emphasized the importance for commuter students to look at all of their resources, even if it means they have to put in extra effort.

For first-year students, commuter resources are even more important. Upperclassmen tend to move out of dorms, but for commuter students where college is new and frightening, community can be difficult to find.

Ellie Reid is a first-year dance student who spent her first semester commuting from Harlem. On top of already having social anxiety, Reid shared that by not living in the dorms and not having the capability to hang out with her class more often, she found herself questioning whether or not she’s making real friends.

In addition to managing her social life and feeling lonely, the commute itself was mentally demanding. And for someone like Reid who studies dance, her physical and mental health is imperative. 

“If a train has major delays, or just isn’t running at all, and I have to figure out an alternate route, this adds so much extra stress to my mornings or evenings which affects my performance in class or ability to sleep properly at night,” Reid said. 

Ellie Reid is a freshman dance student who commuted from Harlem before NYU transitioned to remote classes. But by not living in the dorms prior, she found difficulty to hang out with her class often. (Photo by Ellie Reid. Staff Illustration by Rachel Lee.)

Aside from impacting their health, commuting had an influence on these students’ professional careers, too. By being perceived as inaccessible by his fellow students, Kelley believes it hindered his ability to make connections for future jobs and kept him from being chosen by his classmates to perform in dance shows, which is an essential part of his education. 

“People get opportunities because of the people they know, but nobody really knows me because I’m not around as much,” Kelley stated.

The commuter students explained they didn’t learn about community-building resources such as the Commuter Student Council until late into their commuting experience, but even after seeing the few events available to them, finding additional time to attend these events was inconvenient. 

“I didn’t know about the student council so [NYU] should make it more accessible and talk about it more often,” Patel said, when describing her undergraduate experience as a commuter. 

After moving off-campus her sophomore year and learning about the council through the emails she received, Patel attended a couple of events and found them enjoyable.

Michelle Garcia, Vice President of CSC Programming states that CSC’s intention is to introduce commuter students to each other and create a support network for them. According to her, CSC has recently opened up committee forums, including an Advocacy Committee where “students can bring commuter issues to light.” 

“I believe that commuters, as a community, should advocate, so we can be heard and our needs addressed,” Garcia said. “If we do not speak, NYU will not be aware, and we want our university to be aware.”

One issue is that the term commuter itself may be too broad. 

“As long as you live off-campus, according to NYU, you are a commuter,” Kelley said. “But of course as we all know, if you have an apartment in the East Village with a few friends and school is only a 10-minute walk away, that’s not a commute at all. I don’t think anything about the word ‘commuter’ is accurately represented in NYU’s definition.”

Just like Kelley, Serrano gets upset when her friends who live close to campus call themselves commuters, especially when she knows commuters who have dropped out of NYU after their first-year due to how taxing the commute was but weren’t able to afford on-campus housing. 

“For those commuters it’s pretty tough and when people use the term incorrectly or use it as a sympathy vote, it takes away the struggle that people go through,” Serrano said.

These students seem to fall into a rising category of “super-commuters.” CBS News describes them as those who must travel a long distance to get to work. Reid, Kelley and Serrano feel that NYU can consider their longer distances more by implementing more commuter lounges in NYU buildings that are outside of the main campus such as Third-North, being extra cautious of early or late exam times and creating more commuter programs that connect people based on their interests. 

“I just think it could be interesting to have groups that were sensitive to commuters’ needs based on interest because it’s not like I don’t want to be a part of extra groups outside of Tisch,” Reid said.

Although these students no longer have to commute for the rest of the semester with the classes hosted over Zoom now, their previous commuting struggles have shaped their college experience. 

“Being a commuter means you deal with something extra that other people on campus don’t have to deal with,” Serrano said. “Everyone has their problems, but travelling is a huge contributor to stress.”

Email Rachel Lee at [email protected].

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