Cultural college commuters

Commuter students travel to and fro, but the reason why might surprise you. Photo by Jada Gangazha. 


Living on campus is often a major aspect of the college experience, but some students choose to commute to campus on a daily basis. Oftentimes, I find that many commuter students identify as people of color, children of immigrants or those of a lower socioeconomic level — sometimes even all three. According to the office of registration, 28% of commuter students identify as a person of color, Hispanic or Latinx at Butler. The Butler University fact book shows that 17.3% of full-time undergraduate students identify as some type of racial or ethnic minority.

With the seemingly robust on-campus residential life being beneficial for many students, some students still choose to commute, often for cultural reasons. But why is commuting a cultural phenomenon?  

Summer Beg, sophomore health sciences major and executive board member of the commuter organization Commuters at Butler, shared her thoughts on the cultural aspect of commuting. 

“I know a lot of the Muslim population on campus do stay at home [and] commute to Butler,” Beg said. “[But ultimately], it’s culture [that is] playing more of a role, rather than religion.”

Beg is Pakistani and Muslim, and she shared the aspects of South Asian culture that often impact South Asian students’ decision to commute. 

“I feel like [our] parents want [us] to commute,” Beg said. “I think that a lot of parents are hesitant to let their child live on campus … I feel like it is true that Pakistani or Indian parents will sometimes make their children stay at home just for their safety.”

As someone who commutes myself, the role that my parents play in the decisions that I make is quite considerable. As Beg mentioned, both culture and religion play a role in this. South Asian culture is quite collectivist in nature. For instance, multiple generations of families may live together. Ties between relatives are often very close, and families typically make decisions in the best interest of everyone. Approaching adulthood, the role of a parent in their child’s life does not dwindle as much as it traditionally does in American culture. From an Islamic standpoint, parents should be treated with only the utmost respect. My family is profoundly dear to me, and staying close to them played a large role in my decision to commute. 

Rai Singh, sophomore healthcare and business and Spanish double major, is also a commuter. For him, commuting is an aspect of his family structure. He shared his experiences with commuting as someone who has a younger sibling. 

“It’s just the dynamic in some families,” Singh said. “If there’s a family with two older siblings and a younger sibling, it’s kind of the older siblings’ obligation to take care of the younger sibling at times when the parents are busy.”

Singh is Indian American — specifically Punjabi American — and he spoke about his cultural family dynamic, where taking care of family is essential. I have younger siblings myself, and Singh’s experience is somewhat similar to mine. Growing up, I would always hear family members talk about how I was supposed to be a good example as an older sibling. 

“In Punjabi culture, it’s very common for … kids to help their parents out with [household] duties,” Singh said. “I am a commuter this year, and when I come back home, I also have to help out with duties inside the house … A very close-knit, united family is very common in many Indian households, for example. With commuting [and] coming back home, it’s just a reassurance that everybody’s together under one roof.”

Being able to see my family every night, albeit briefly, is something I am deeply grateful for. My first year of college was confusing and a little bit isolating in the beginning, as it often is for a lot of people. However, if I had not been able to see my brothers and parents, I think that would have greatly worsened how alone I felt. This new chapter of my life was made easier when I knew I could always go home at the end of the day. 

However, taking care of younger siblings is not the only caretaking that occurs in many immigrant families. The responsibility of caring for one’s parents and older relatives is also very common. 

Sophomore biology major Jocelyn Roman also commutes, and she shared her experiences of helping take care of her mother in her Mexican American household. 

“The normal dynamic for families [in Mexican culture] is that children take care of their parents as they get older,” Roman said. “Being the only one that’s living with [my mother], it kind of falls on me to take her to the grocery store, take her to work [and] pick her up.”

Providing care for older and younger family members is a key facet of many cultures. It is, of course, an aspect of most people’s lives to some extent, but it is significantly different among many non-white cultures. Intergenerational living is common in many cultures — when multiple generations of a family are living together, caring for one another becomes ingrained in the family structure. Through commuting, we are able to continue and maintain that cultural practice. 

Commuting and staying close to family is a cultural practice for many students that is sometimes hard for others to totally understand. Reaching the age of adulthood does not necessarily correlate to independence and emancipation in the Western sense, and Roman shared that this concept was something that her peers did not always understand. 

“People have told me… like ‘just tell [your family] you’re busy,’” Roman said. “Or… ‘What [is your family] gonna do if you move out?’”

Roman continued and shared that although the option to move out does exist, her cultural background and family dynamic — and her own personal choice — keep her near to her family.

Moving out once you turn 18 is not the norm for all cultures, and that concept is tough for some people to grasp. Personally, I have not experienced any negative comments about my living situation, but people do tend to look down on adults that continue living with their families. 

Being able to come home to my family at the end of every day provides me with the ability to keep my academic and personal life somewhat separate from each other. But as comforting as it may be, commuting comes along with its own sets of stressors. As a commuter, having to drive to campus every single day is a bit of a hassle. 

I often wake up quite early and go to bed quite late if I have extracurricular meetings or activities. I need to wake up a minimum of two hours before my classes start in order to get to campus on time; if I have an 8 a.m. class, I have to get up at 6 a.m. A lot of extracurricular activities and meetings often happen later in the day, which means that I either have to drive back if I have gone home, or stay on campus the entirety of the day. I have meetings that sometimes end around late in the evening, and I still have to drive home about half an hour after that. 

Oftentimes, there are days that I have 9 a.m. classes and meetings that will end at 10 p.m., and I will stay on campus the entire time, because driving home, and then driving back, takes up a lot of time. It also takes up a lot of gas.

As a first-year student, I would often drive home right after my classes would end, and I would miss out on a lot of events and activities. This year, I find myself staying on campus a lot later. Roman shared that she also had a similar experience, where she used to drive home right after her classes would end. 

“I feel like this semester I’ve done a better job at staying later [on campus] when events are happening,” Roman said. “But there are times when events will be [very] late … and I don’t wanna be out at night, driving this late.”

The commuter experience may slightly differ from the typical college experience, but that does not necessarily mean that commuter students are missing out. We have a bit of extra driving to do, and we go back home every day. The rest of our days are quite similar; we all go to the same classes, at the same school, and experience a lot of the same things.

Whether living on campus or off, living in a hall or at home, the ideal college experience looks different for everyone.


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