Best Practices for Off-Campus Community Development

There are so many ways to classify students who live off-campus that it is near impossible to place them into a box. They’re not “one size fits all”.

Recently, we looked at identifying off-campus student populations.

Since we now know WHO we are looking for…

What do we do to engage this student subpopulation?

How do we make sure that they are connected to our institution, each other, and valuable services that can make their time at college easier?

Here are best practices from my experience and things I’ve picked up from other institutions you can begin to adopt to engage your off-campus community.

1. Gathering a Core Group of Students

The very first thing that helped me to engage off-campus students: gather a core group of student leaders to champion your goals as their own.

This is important. Without students who can support you and bring their friends, you end up doing all the work by yourself or with just one or two other staff members. Students know other students and will have greater buy-in if their friend(s) are already involved.

How do you do this? It is easier said than done! We spent time observing and engaging with the students who were already attending our smaller events. Three years ago, we gathered a core group of 5 students: all who were regulars at our programs.

We provided these students with leadership training, gave them tools to begin gathering friends and others into community, and encouraged leadership multiplication. Myself and other staff spent more time with potential leaders for mentorship, while student leaders took the lead on gathering other students together.

By the end of our second semester, this core group turned into 25 students. We can now draw 20-25 regular off-campus student leaders to our events as volunteers who come to serve their peers. Because they are coming, they usually have 2-3 friends each attend as well.

2. Enriching Current Campus Programming

The best piece of advice for those starting commuter programming is to enrich what is already going on at your campus.

Often off-campus students may not have any friend(s) to attend a program with. You can provide a fix for this problem two different ways.

The first is to make yourself available to attend events or programs with your off-campus students. Giving students a personal invitation to an event and letting them know a friendly face will be present for some time will help qualm some of their social fears.

The second is to stage a gathering place outside of the event. You could almost call it the “Find a Friend” station (or something less corny). It just needs to be somewhere commuters can go before the event to find others without a group of their own. This is a fantastic way to get your core group of leaders involved.

3. Micro-Programming & Events

The second thing I learned early in my career, which again is not extensive, is to Keep. It. Simple.

Students do not need you to create large, elaborate experiences. The classic, and still relevant, best trick in the book is simple: free food – as long as a meaningful experience comes with it.

We host small events that are easy to set-up and take little staff to run. These events include things like:

  • ‘Welcome Back to Campus’ tables after academic breaks like summer and winter intersession
  • Game nights (with actual board games or card games)
  • Crafting nights
  • Coffee or tea education programs
  • Book swaps

… the possibilities are not exhaustive.

I have also seen other campuses host small events so specifically “commuter” that they are simply brilliant. One such example is “Learn how to change a tire.” If you are reading this and YOU are not even sure how to accomplish such a feat, there is a good chance that many of your commuting students have no idea either.

You can turn almost any hobby or passion into a micro-program. The focus just needs to be something you can do easily and without a ton of work.

4. Creating A Space To Call Their Own

One of the best ways to provide community development for students who live off campus, and really tied to institutional investment, is to provide a space ON campus to call their own.

Call it a lounge, living room, connection center, or collegium – the purpose is the same: a space that is ONLY for off-campus students.

We recently have been given such a space, and have tracked the number of uses daily, weekly, and monthly. In March 2017, we had over 1,000 student visits – and this was only our third month of space operation.

For a look at some great lounge programs, check out Seattle University or Trinity Western University.

If you are nowhere near having enough institutional backing to get a commuter lounge, the next best thing is to identify a space on campus that you could adopt on a regular basis. Look for the area with comfortable couches and chairs, outlets for charging, and table to put a coffee pot and condiments.

Find it. Work with your institution’s conferences and events to book it regularly. Do this once or twice a week if possible and before you know it, BAM, there’s a good chance students will arrive!

You now have a space they can kind of call theirs.

5. Advocating for Off-Campus Students

Commuters and other off-campus students regularly may feel that everything they encounter on campus is not actually meant for them. There may not be another person who is really thinking of them as being different from residential students.

Think of the lockers in the student union that were installed for students without a room to go back to in between classes. Are they actually open to everyone? Residential students may often get to those lockers first.

What about the entire extra space of tables that opened in the new academic building for students needing a place to study or get work done? Guessing residential students also get to those first.

The biggest challenge can simply be traffic and parking. How many faculty and staff do commuters have to contend with for a parking space or to make it to campus on time for class? Commuter life is not always very easy.

I have been called “The Mean Commuter Guy” more than once by a residential student. This usually happens when I say “no” to the “Hey, can I have a donut? Thanks!” If you are going to be committed to serving off-campus students, you will need to advocate for them when no one else will.

I am NOT telling you to chase down a residential student who snags a donut anyway and then runs off as fast as they can. Really, if they need a donut that bad…

This list of practices is not exhaustive by any means; it does provide some tricks you can use to get started. If you have ideas you want to feedback on, or just to discuss what I’ve covered here, please follow me on Twitter and DM me. I would love to chat any time.

Don’t worry, we won’t share your email.
Eric Fehr

About the author: Eric Fehr is the Associate Director of Student Life at Liberty University. He serves a large undergraduate and graduate off-campus student population and can’t remember his last bad day at work. Connect with him on Twitter @FehrEric. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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