Living at home her first year at college was not Weinberg freshman Stephanie Murillo’s first choice. Murillo commutes at least an hour both ways from her home in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood, about 15 minutes away from O’Hare International Airport. That’s 10 hours in the car every week, assuming traffic is light and weather accommodating.
“When I think about how that time could be dedicated to finishing a book for my seminar or even getting more sleep, I regret commuting at those moments,” she says.
While commuting eliminates the expense of room and board – $14,389 as of the 2014-15 school year – it adds the stress of travel and time management onto already busy students. Northwestern estimates commuters spend $984 on transportation each academic year. A dollar sign, however, doesn’t capture the mental and physical stress of hours of driving on very little sleep.
Weinberg freshman Kathryn Fajardo drives from Schaumburg, Illinois, roughly an hour away from campus. She says she had no idea of the toll commuting would take on her health when she decided to live at home.
“I get anxiety because of it,” she says. “I didn’t expect it to be that strenuous on me.”
Parking on campus has proven to be an obstacle for Fajardo. Commuters can purchase parking permits for $446.40 for the entire academic year. These are specifically designated for students who live outside the walking zone surrounding Northwestern, but most of the parking lots are not close to academic buildings.
“It’s a pain in the butt, honestly,” Fajardo says.
In between classes, most Northwestern students can go back to their dorm rooms or catch up with friends at a dining hall courtesy of a university meal plan. But commuters don’t really have a place to call their own. Murillo says she can squat in friends’ dorm rooms or sit in Norris trying to do homework. In 2006, alumni donated money to build a lounge specifically for commuters on the ground floor of Norris, but it’s not monitored by any staff and is open to any Northwestern student who wants a little peace and quiet.
But even knowing enough people on campus to call in favors can be challenging.
Fajardo was the only student from her high school graduating class to attend Northwestern, which means she had to start fresh at college without living there.
“I lack that dorm community,” Fajardo says. “As a freshman, I think that’s really necessary.”
Despite the frustrations of staying late for club meetings and other events, Murillo and Fajardo have found ways to join communities outside of dorm life.
Murillo joined a dance group and a pre-med mentorship program, providing her with support from upperclassmen who can give her advice about Northwestern life. Fajardo chose Greek life. She says her new chapter understands her situation and offers to let her crash in an empty room whenever she needs.
“Thankfully I have sorority life and I have people there for me and ... the house to go to if I have no classes,” she says. “They’ve been really supportive.”
Encouragement from home has helped Fajardo “push through” the beginning of her freshman year, she says. Her parents want her to have as much of a typical college experience as possible, rearranging her room at home to look like a dorm room, complete with a lofted bed and reading corner. She calls it a “mock college life,” one that requires her to carry an extra bag of clothes and toiletries in her car in case she decides to sleep over.
On the flip side of living at home, life can start to seem remarkably similar to high school: going to class and then coming home to do homework and sleep. House chores and family responsibilities can pile up, a factor most college students can forget when they leave home.
“When I’m at home, I still have to be on top of my things, especially because my parents are still around and they still act as if I’m in high school,” Murillo says. “They still ask, ‘Why haven’t you started on your homework?’”
But Northwestern keeps commuters coming back.
“I decided to sacrifice the whole going off and living the typical college life for the quality of Northwestern’s education,” she says. “And I would do it again.”