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Though these Harrisonburg commuters grew up close to campus, they said they had to learn how to adapt to life at JMU just like on-campus students.

Many on-campus students might think Dukes who grew up in Harrisonburg and commute to JMU know the ins and outs of the area such as the best restaurants and the campus atmosphere but commuters say they’re figuring it out right alongside newcomers.

Rahel Askari, a senior health sciences major, grew up only a mile from Memorial Hall but said JMU “feels like its own little city.”

She said she had to learn the campus culture with the other incoming students and that she continues to experience new things every day, just like people who live on campus. 

Askari made the decision to commute because of her family. She said her parents were “pretty persistent” about her staying home since they have a close relationship, and for her, it’s easy to live with them.

“I think that we have healthy boundaries, so I don’t see any, like, pros or cons about it,” Askari said. “It’s pretty neutral.” 

Mary Tolentino Baez, a junior health sciences and Spanish double major who grew up five minutes from campus, decided to commute to JMU from her home for financial reasons and because she already lived close to school. Even after living in Harrisonburg for eight years, she said she looks at JMU much differently now that she’s attending and commuting here. 

“In high school, for example, I kind of looked at it more as, like, an outsider,” Tolentino Baez said. “Now that I actually go there, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, I kind of have my own identity as a student here.’”

Tolentino Baez also pointed out how attending JMU allowed her to see the differences in the JMU and Harrisonburg communities.

“I kind of get to see both sides,” Tolentino Baez said.

She said that being from Harrisonburg, she’s used to being exposed to more diversity because of the large number of people that come from different countries, as well as the refugee community. Whereas at JMU, Tolentino Baez said there’s much less diversity to be found.  

Jackie Mateo-Sanchez, a senior living at home just five minutes from Memorial Hall, also decided to commute because she lives close to campus. She said going from diverse schools in Harrisonburg for her middle and high school years and then coming to JMU, a majority white school, was a different experience.

“That was, like, a big culture shock,” Mateo-Sanchez said. “Even though I knew that there were a lot of white people, just, like, in the first week, it hit me that this doesn’t feel like Harrisonburg.”

Commuting pros and cons

All three students shared similar pros and cons regarding the commuting experience.

Tolentino Baez and Mateo-Sanchez both said saving money was their No. 1 advantage for commuting. By commuting, Mateo-Sanchez said, that she’s able to save thousands of dollars.

Other than saving money, Askari and Tolentino Baez both mentioned that at home, they’re in a welcoming environment with more comfort and support than other students may have on campus. 

On the other hand, as Tolentino Baez pointed out, living at home while attending school can have its challenges. With comfort comes other responsibilities that she said on-campus college students get to leave for a few months. 

She said that at home, not only does she have to help out with chores, but she has to help provide rides to family members who have different schedules. She said that at times, she’s had to rearrange her schedule to make sure everybody gets to where they need to be.

“Whenever it’s hectic for them, it also ends up being hectic for me, too,” Tolentino Baez said.

Tolentino Baez and Askari also pointed out the downside of parking on campus and the frustration that comes with it — a struggle they share with many off-campus students.

 

“It’s stressful and a hassle because it’s something I have to think about beforehand and not, like, at the moment that I get there,” Tolentino Baez said. “I’m already thinking, ‘Ugh, what if I can’t find parking?’’’

The social aspect of commuting is another thing Tolentino Baez and Mateo-Sanchez mentioned that can, at times, be challenging. 

“It’s a lot easier for [on-campus students] to make friends compared to me, where I actually have to be the one to initiate it, whether it’s in classes or clubs, and then they can just be friends with people in their dorms and all that,” Mateo-Sanchez said. 

Mateo-Sanchez said she’s never invited someone from school over to her house since she lives with her family, she feels it may make her friends uncomfortable. Normally, she said, she’ll hang out with friends somewhere on campus or meet them downtown.

Mateo-Sanchez also offered a piece of advice for incoming commuter students: Join clubs and utilize JMU’s services. 

“I feel like the pandemic has played a major role,” Mateo Sanchez said. “Last year, I told myself I wanted to be more involved, but since we couldn’t be on campus, I joined a lot of clubs over Zoom. Even though I’m not physically there, I can still communicate with those in the club.”

Tolentino Baez also discussed staying involved on campus. She works for the Center of Civic Engagement and the Center for Multicultural Student Services, which she said help her to feel more included on campus.

“It gives me a way to be more involved on campus in ways that I probably would not have found if I was just solely going to class and then going home,” Tolentino Baez said.

Mateo-Sanchez and Tolentino Baez both said that at times, they do regret their decision to commute. They said living on campus seems like an experience of its own, and Mateo Sanchez said that as a senior, she sometimes wonders about all the friends she may have made if she’d lived on campus.

Tolentino Baez said that regardless, she’s just glad that she gets to go to a university in general. 

Askari, on the other hand, expressed that she feels no regrets for her decision to commute.

“I love the support system, honestly,” Askari said. “Being in a welcoming environment, not only being around friends that you’ve grown up with, but also, like, having the family that you love and cherish, I think that’s really nice. On the days that I need to fall back on someone, they have me, and that’s honestly all I could ask for.”

Contact Lauren Kuhno at kuhnolm@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.