Commuters, internationals and first-generation students: A new perspective on campus life

Office of International Education Staff members Susan Whipple (far left) and Marie Krueger (left center) meet with international students YunJung Lee (center), Aishah Al-Fedhalah from Kuwait (right center), and James Deone from Jamaica (right) in OIE. Photo by Emily Waller / Emily.Waller@Marquette.edu

Take a second and imagine what the “average” Marquette student is like. Where are they from? What’s their background? What has their Marquette experience been like?

Chances are, you thought of someone from the Chicago suburbs, or at least from the Midwest. This person also probably comes from a middle-class background, with one or both parents having graduated from college.

As for the Marquette experience, you probably thought of things like going to classes, joining clubs or living in a dorm or apartment.

But not every student at Marquette fits this mold exactly — and some don’t fit it at all.

About 500 students at Marquette come from different countries, said Ellen Blauw, associate director of the Office of International Education.

Twenty-one percent of undergraduates are the first members of their families, to attend college, said Alexandra Riley, assistant director of the Office of Institutional Research & Assessment, in an e-mail.

And nearly 500 students don’t live in the dorms or apartments, commuting every day instead, said Dave Stockton, coordinator for campus programs in the Office of Student Development.

All of these students experience college in a way that is anything but average, as their nontraditional paths to Marquette bring both unique challenges and rewards.

The international student experience

There are 154 undergraduate international students at Marquette, Blauw said.

Most international students are here to earn their degrees, not to be part of a study abroad program, she said.

International students decide to come to the United States for a variety of reasons, such as a desire to improve their English skills or gain greater international experience, she said.

“The value of a U.S. education is probably the most compelling reason (students come over),” Blauw said.

The Office of International Education engages in similar kinds of recruiting efforts the Office of Admissions performs, such as attending college fairs or visiting schools overseas, Blauw said.

Marquette’s reputation as a university is a major reason why students choose to come here, she said. Many students also come from abroad if they have relatives in the Milwaukee or Chicago areas.

Mike Bermeo, a junior in the College of Engineering, came to Marquette from Ecuador.

There are far more educational opportunities here than in Ecuador, he said. The College of Engineering’s co-op program was a major reason he chose to come to Marquette.

“That’s huge for my resume,” he said. “I’ll graduate with a year’s worth of experience.”

OIE plays a major role in helping students transition to the U.S., from visa and immigration assistance to a special orientation session just for internationals, Blauw said.

The university also offers English as a second language courses, she said.

Bermeo said his initial transition to Marquette was a little rough.

“My first semester, I had to take an ESL class,” he said. “I was taking 20 credits and had no idea what college was supposed to be like.”

Students may find the U.S. educational system is significantly different than in their home countries, like the way many American classes rely on continual assessment through quizzes and homework instead of one test at the end of the semester, Blauw said.

But despite the challenges, Blauw said most students find they benefit from what they learn about themselves during their time here.

College life as a first-generation student

One of the main challenges first-generation college students face is not knowing where to turn for help or guidance, said Karen Desotelle, the director of Student Educational Services.

“They don’t have an informal network to help them find those resources,” Desotelle said. “Students have to develop a level of institutional savvy to work the system.”

It’s not as simple as asking parents for advice because their parents have no prior experience with the college system, she said. This inexperience can make it difficult for parents to understand the difficulties college students face.

“Parents who have not been to college have this idea that hard work is going to get you where you want to go, but hard work sometimes doesn’t pay off,” Desotelle said. “That leaves the students questioning their suitability for the institution.”

For Kelly Mackey, a senior in the College of Health Sciences, being a first-generation college student meant relying more on herself or her peers for guidance than on her family.

“I’m the oldest, so I didn’t have anybody ahead of me to talk to or give guidance,” she said. “I learned as I went or from my roommates.”

Neither of Mackey’s parents attended a four-year college. Her mother has an associate degree, and her father went to trade school to become an electrician.

Regardless, her parents pushed her to go to college, Mackey said.

“My parents were always like, ‘You have to do it,’” she said. “It wasn’t an option not to go.”

Mackey said she was proud to have achieved something her parents were not able to do.

“It makes me feel like I kind of overcame a barrier,” she said.

Mayra Roman, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, is also a first-generation college student. Both her parents immigrated from Mexico and didn’t advance beyond middle school.

Roman herself didn’t speak fluent English until sixth grade. Her parents could offer little beyond financial assistance when she was applying to colleges.

“They just couldn’t help me,” Roman said. “I did it all by myself with the help of my teachers.”

This trend continued once she was at Marquette.

“Everything was completely new,” she said. “I didn’t have an older brother telling me, ‘Oh yeah, this is what happens in college. You’re going to have to face all these issues.’”

She credited her freshman year academic adviser with helping her navigate her first year of college.

Roman said she is one of only a handful of people in her extended family to have attended college. Now members of her family ask her for advice about helping their own children get to college, she said. Roman said she’s happy to fulfill this role for her family and anyone else coming from a similar background.

“I just want to be an inspiration to my cousins and to other minorities,” she said.

MU life for commuters

The challenge for commuting students is they often feel they’re not as much a part of the Marquette community as residential students, Stockton, of OSD, said.

They also have concerns that students who live on or near campus don’t have to worry about. For example, commuter students have to put more thought into scheduling their days to accommodate for living away from campus, he said.

“Their lives can be much more stressful than rolling out of bed, jumping in the shower and going across the street to class,” he said. “When it comes down to things like transport, they have to think a lot more carefully about what classes they’re scheduling.”

Emery Gould, a junior in the College of Health Sciences, commuted during her sophomore year after living in the dorms.

Gould said her commute time varied from 15 minutes by car to 45 minutes by bus. This took a toll on her involvement in student organizations, she said.

Another difficulty for commuters is they lack the support system of on-campus life to help keep them connected, Stockton said.

“They don’t have a floor, an RA, a hall director,” he said. “They don’t have these ingrained support systems set up in the residence life system.”

OSD works to fill this gap for commuters, offering services like a commuter-specific orientation session and a special dinner to help commuter students connect with one another, Stockton said.

There is also a commuter lounge in the Alumni Memorial Union, which has seen increased use, he said.

“Usage of it has rocketed to the point now that they’re actually voicing a concern if it’s big enough,” Stockton said.

Overall, commuting from home felt more like being in high school than in college, Gould said. But this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it meant getting home-cooked meals and the ability to get away from campus easily.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Gould said.

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