The Rapidian

Seven lessons of commuting to college from home

You don’t have to follow the expected path to create memories or be independent.

/Sara Lackey

I choose to live at home with my parents and commute to college instead of living in a dorm. As many of my friends picked out bedding and new outfits and gleefully packed up their cars, I was still working my summer job before school began. As the first day of school arrived, I packed my backpack and hopped in my car. 

I drive to and from school. Every. Single. Day. I think you should consider it too. 

You may be thinking it’s not worth giving up the “college experience.” Maybe you can’t help but Pin all those cute dorm room ideas on Pinterest. Maybe you just can’t wait to be independent and make your own decisions. Trust me, I know. My senior year of high school filled my head with worries, but also my stomach with butterflies, and my heart with excitement. I had no idea what was next but was ready to find out. So, I began applying to schools both near and far. 

I applied to schools that were far away, too, but one look at the list of costs and I knew I couldn’t do it. So, I narrowed down my search to focus on choosing a school I liked that was closer. Commuting to a nearby school would cut down my costs drastically. 

I made the choice to commute because it was practical. However, I also wasn’t sure that living in such a small space was for me, and I knew I would miss the freedom to roam country roads. I knew that I would feel buried in student loans upon graduation, and just the idea of that made me anxious. I knew that I dreamed of owning my own small home someday and living on campus would push that dream even further away, making it feel impossible to reach. I also knew that I wasn’t going to let my chance at education slip away because it would be hard. I made the decision to make it work for me, even if it looked different from others’ stories. 

Here are the benefits and lessons I’ve learned so far from my choice. 

Stay close to your family

I get to eat dinner with them a couple times a week, outside of the stressful holiday times. I learned to not run away from them when we had disagreements. Rather than growing apart from them as I changed, I grew alongside them. I did not want to cut ties with my family, and a multi-generational community to talk to can be important. For many students, your family can be the ones that you talk through things with to get a broader perspective, rather than limiting yourself to conversations with peers. Your parents still have things to teach you, and can help you work through so many bumps in the road during college. 

Bonus: If you have pets, you get to see them whenever you want! I love that my puppies greet me every morning, and they can be a stress reliever, which every college student needs. 

Choose your influencers

I kept up with not only my family, but many of my friends from high school and work. I learned how to decide which people I spend the most time with, rather than defaulting to the people I get put in a dorm with. I am not saying that you should not expand your horizons and meet new people in college. You should definitely learn about others, and how to emphasize with people that are different from you. However, I am talking about the close friends that impact your daily choices. They may be different from you, but they should have the type of habits that you want to see in yourself and knowledge that you can learn from. Students should be a community of sharing ideas. The people you choose to spend your time with shows what your character is like. Who do you want to be? How you spend your time is an investment in you, so choose wisely. 

Be more involved in the community

As a commuter, I’m not stuck on campus all the time. I have a car and could go out and explore the local city. I’ve learned more about the community I live in, so even after college I will know what’s available to me. (Many students are involved only on campus, with people of the same age, and may not learn how to stay involved in a community after college.)

Side note: Besides not having to give up your car, you could even walk or bike to school if you live close enough or learn how to use a public transit system. You can also learn how to keep your car well maintained. Knowing how to get places and navigate is infinitely useful. On top of this, you are not limited to only on-campus jobs and can gain experiences at nearby companies in any field. 

Enjoy campus perks

On campus, often times, many one-credit classes can easily be added to your schedule without increasing your tuition. My college charges the same flat rate for the registration period for anywhere between 12 and 18 credit hours, rather than a per credit hour cost. So far, I’ve taken yoga, hiking, and music classes on campus, and found they’re a great way to meet people and stay active. (Bonus: some of these may fill general education requirements). 

Between classes, I wasn’t able to hide out in the comfort of my room, so I quickly became acquainted with the campus and its resources, and comfortable using the library and study areas. I knew where I could go to study, socialize, and who to ask questions to within the first week. (Hint: librarians know what they’re doing and how to do research, and most colleges have writing help and tutoring centers, as well) Also, you’ll likely have access to fitness centers as a commuter, too. Free and healthy resources are definitely a college student’s friend!

Save money

This is a big one. I don’t think anyone would be shocked when I say that college tuition has shot up. Actually, “student debt has more than doubled over the past decade,” (Wall Street Journal: Banks Want a Bigger Piece of Your Student Loan). Living off-campus has allowed me to take out less money in loans, and I haven’t had to work three jobs just to pay for room and board. 

I haven’t had to ask my parents for loans, although they’ve definitely saved me money in other ways. (They’ve provided housing, a free washer and dryer for laundry, and much of my food. I don’t think I have to explain why college students should like free things.) Overall, I feel less stressed about money, and if something unexpected were to happen, or I had ever decided to switch majors and were to need an extra semester to finish my degree, for example, I wouldn’t be as quick to run out of money. 

Besides this, I have more spending money to go out to eat and for other activities. I can afford to budget part of my paycheck from my job towards fun activities each week, rather than getting stuck in a cycle of living paycheck to paycheck. I still have to budget both my time and money, but I do have more freedom this way to say yes to some spontaneous adventures and treats for myself. 

Plan for the future

Housing payments for a dorm room are not as much of an investment, and more of a rental. I hope to buy a house for myself someday and I know that my payments will then be an investment towards something I will own at the end. By saving my money, I am less likely to have to “move back in” with my parents after college for as long as others. I can be saving up towards housing for later. Housing costs have increased monumentally in the past years.

Even if owning a house isn’t one of your long-term goals, think about what else could be before making a decision. Do you want to travel? Upgrade to an eco-friendlier car? What other possibilities have you not considered? What is the opportunity cost for you to live on campus? 

Choose your adventure

I know college is supposed to be a magical place filled with late night adventures and mac and cheese. However, taking the road less traveled as a commuter can open other opportunities. Instead of choosing the default, you can make the best choice for you. For example, you can save up money towards road trips or mission trips. Personally, I am choosing to study abroad for a semester in Spain.

Besides this, there are summer jobs you can apply for that may provide housing while you’re earning money. (Examples: Disney World, Mackinac Island, summer camp counselors) If you don’t live on campus, this can be an alternative adventure that may suit you better. Plus, living at home before a summer away will leave you with less packing and unpacking, and more time to spend with family before leaving. 

Create healthy habits

Now is the time to develop the habits you want to keep. Get in the habit of waking up early. See the sunrise. Learn how to navigate morning traffic. Use your commute as “me time,” for jam sessions whenever you want, or to listen to audiobooks or podcasts to keep yourself motivated. These are the type of habits and time-management skills that can help keep you motivated and prepared for a regular work life. 

Learn to cook yourself a good breakfast in the morning, and how-to meal prep lunches. Even if your family doesn’t provide you with food, you can learn how to use a kitchen, and not live off ramen noodles. Bonus: it’s healthier! I know friends that live with their parents but are given their own section in the fridge to store their own groceries in, and this also allows you to learn to shop for yourself.

Create your own space

One benefit of staying at home, especially for those that need time alone to recharge, is that you likely have more of your own space. Get good sleep without noisy upstairs neighbors. Have dance parties in your room. I like to paint canvases, and you could even turn something like this into a side hustle. Decorate your room however you want. Light as many candles as you want. Rearrange each week if you please. Spread out all of your work as much as you want. Paint, draw, write, dance, sing, create. Your life is your canvas. 

Make yourself a priority

I found peace in my choice to live at home and commute to college. I am able to rest in the fact that I made the decision based on what I believe is best for me and my future. I have learned that everyone’s college experience is different, and there is no one right way to go to school. As long as I am learning and growing, I consider that a win. 

In the end, you can learn to be at peace with what you have. Cultivating a grateful heart is important, and if there is something you don’t like about your situation, you will have time to change it. 

This may not be the solution for everyone. There are definitely positives and negatives to consider regarding both on-campus living and commuting. However, it is something that is not often talked about as students look towards there freshman year of college. You don’t have to follow the expected path to create memories or be independent. Do what’s best for you, even if it’s not always what’s expected. Becca Martin, a writer at Thought Catalogue, advises her readers in an April 2017 article: “stop doing what you think is expected of you and start doing what you want.” (20 ways to make your 20s the best years of your life). If you want to be at peace with your decisions, you have to choose them yourselves. Set aside cultural pressure. Make choices that lift a weight of worries off your chest, or that make your heart dance. You do not have to follow a timeline. The chance to become independent doesn’t have an expiration date. Carve out your own path.

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