BY CHRISTOPHER KERNAN-SCHMIDT
Mason is a commuter school. Step into the administrative offices in Merten Hall and dare to utter those cursed words, and I imagine one would be near exiled for such a statement. Certainly that is hyperbole, but the point is not far from the truth.
According to the university’s fact sheet for 2018, only 25 percent of undergraduate students live on campus. That is a large majority (over 18,000 undergraduates) of students who drive, walk, bike, carpool, bus, or otherwise have to commute to campus each week. There is no arguing that Mason is a commuter school, so why is Mason not working towards becoming the best school for its largest population?
According to Mason’s housing website, there are approximately 30 professional staff and over 200 student employees serving the needs of 25 percent of its undergraduate population. On the other end of the spectrum, Off-Campus Student Services’ website lists only 11 total staff (both student and professional) serving a customer base of nearly triple that of housing. Clearly, there is a discrepancy.
Located in the bottom level of the Hub, there is a little-known office called the Off-Campus Student Lounge. It likely seats at max 20 or so students. Twenty out of the thousands that are on campus each day. In reality, the Johnson Center has become the focal point in any commuter’s day and it is the off-campus student lounge that thousands resort to each day. Why is it that such an important population of students must share a few hundred wooden seats, stained couches and a noisy atmosphere?
I lived on campus my first year, and I distinctly remember being bombarded by events aimed at those who lived on campus. Mason does a fabulous job ensuring that students who live on campus are afforded opportunities to get involved in campus life and feel like part of the community.
Mason also provides resident and community assistants who are readily available to answer questions, mediate disputes, help you get involved and sometimes be your first friends on campus. I cannot help but wonder where that support network is for off-campus students. Many new off-campus students either live alone or with their families and sometimes you just need someone other than Mom and Dad to talk to. Yet we are not afforded the same interpersonal assistance that some of our peers are receiving.
Mason is proud of its partnership with Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) to offer a pathway directly into a four-year degree at our institution. It is an amazing plan and a fabulous opportunity, yet there is one fatal flaw – off-campus support for those students is lacking.
Many who choose to go to NOVA for the first half of their undergrad do so to save money and when they inevitably transfer to Mason, it is unlikely they will spend thousands of dollars to live on campus. Mason boasts about this wonderful program, but with the lack of support for these students outside of the classroom how will attending Mason be any different that their experience at NOVA? At least at NOVA everyone was an off-campus student.
Mason should be prioritizing these students’ experiences so that they look back on their time at Mason as an opportunity that helped them grow outside of the classroom and not merely an extension of NOVA.
Additionally, and perhaps most appalling, is that Mason seems so determined to erase its stature as a commuter school that it has decided to rename the Office of Off-Campus Student Services to the Office of Contemporary Student Services.
According to Merriam-Webster, contemporary is marked by the characteristics of the present period. Mason recognizes that off-campus — whoops sorry — contemporary students are the students of today, yet fails to provide adequate support for these students.
Tomorrow’s students will still transfer from NOVA, be unable to afford on-campus housing, live at home, live with roommates, work full-time, have families and still be off-campus. You cannot get rid of us. Mason began as a commuter school and I dearly hope it will strive to be the best commuter school it can be. Do not ignore us or hide us by calling us “contemporary.”
I want to end by saying that complaining is easy, so I am open and eager to meet with administrators and fellow students to come up with realistic solutions to best help.
I also recognize that the Office of Contemporary Student Services is a very accommodating and welcoming office and I imagine they are trying their best with so few resources. This is not an attack on the office, but rather a discussion on the lack of institutional support overall.