The bed-headed undergrad, slouching the half-block from dorm room to lecture hall with seconds to spare, is a cliché of TV and movies. But that’s not what most University of Toronto students will experience this fall; the majority of them commute. Some live nearby, but many live further out, scattered across the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. In all, it’s estimated that roughly 85 per cent of U of T students commute to one of the three campuses.
One of them is Jay Merc, a second-year film major studying at the St. George campus. Merc, 21, lives with her parents in the east end of Scarborough – “practically Pickering,” she says. “I’m living at home to save money, and the commute is a sacrifice I have to make.”
Merc’s daily trip to campus is a whirlwind tour through Toronto’s public transit system. She walks 15 minutes to the nearest bus stop, and rides about half an hour to the Scarborough Rapid Transit line. At Kennedy Station, Merc ransfers to a TTC subway. She then rides west to St. George Station, from where she walks to class. Total travel time: up to two hours. In the evening, repeat in reverse. “It’s so taxing on your reserves,” says Merc. “You come home, and you just have a short amount of time to relax, and you have to get right back to the books.”
Long commutes aren’t just a drag for individual students; every minute spent on the road instead of in classroom discussion or extracurricular activities gradually erodes campus community. A recent National Survey of Student Engagement shows that students with long commutes rate their university experience lower than those in residence or living nearby.
Luckily, U of T has several facilities and programs to help commuters spend more quality time on campus, and more are on the way. A proposal to build a Student Commons on Devonshire Place includes club and society offices, study, lounge and prayer space, and dedicated services for commuters, such as a bike repair area. (Students voted to support the commons in 2007 with an increase to their incidental fees, and plans will be submitted to the Governing Council for approval this year.)
Last fall, University College opened its Commuter Student Centre, a space that provides room for off-campus students. “The whole intention behind it was to provide a home base for people who are between classes and want to get involved,” says Nona Robinson, dean of students at UC. To that end, the centre throws meet-and-mingle events for commuters, and is home to the Commuter Student Dons, an off-campus version of residence dons. Other colleges have similar facilities; the latest is Innis College’s commuter student lounge. The University of Toronto Mississauga offers a carpooling program. And in February, the Ontario government contributed $15 million to expand the number of study spots at Robarts Library by 50 per cent – crucial for commuter students to be able to work on campus.
Merc has considered options for moving closer to campus, but it would mean sharing a house or apartment with classmates – and on her budget, it would be pretty cramped. “I can’t handle sharing a bathroom with that many people,” she says with a laugh, “so I guess I’m just going to have to stick it out.”