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How Do You Help First-Year Commuter Students Feel Like They Belong on a Campus of 50k People?

Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services
June 3, 2020 Karla Carreras University of British Columbia

Excellence Awards recognize the contributions of members who are transforming higher education through outstanding programs, innovative services, and effective administration. NASPA's Excellence Awards cover eleven categories crucial to the success of students. Sharing our successes benefit students, improves institutions, and promotes our profession. 

2020 Commuter Off-Campus Military-Connected Non-traditional and related Excellence Award Winner: Karla Carreras and UBC Vancouver Collegia 

At the University of British Columbia - Vancouver campus, approximately 40% of first-year commuter students are commuting over 2 hours daily (UBC, 2013), one of the longest commutes in Canada. With increased commute time, students’ sense of belonging decreases - for first-year students, the time constraints that arise from commuting can impact their capacity to develop friendships, access campus resources, and form strong attachments to their campus community (Kuh, Gonyea & Palmer, 2001; Newbold, Mehta & Forbus, 2011; UBC, 2013). UBC Collegia are designed to directly address these challenges.

What is a Collegia?

UBC Vancouver’s Collegia are an interdisciplinary ‘home-away-from-home’ for first-year students who commute. Through these intentionally designed and dedicated physical spaces, new students can meet other first-year students, get advice from senior peer mentors and faculty members, and other supports that help them navigate their transition into university. Collegia help first-year students become immersed in university life, make friends, and build a positive attachment to the UBC community.

In ancient Roman, “Collegia” means “gathered together” and the sites are designed with this spirit in mind. Each Collegium is open from 8:00 am – 7:00 pm, Monday to Friday, during the academic year and consist of:

  • 250-300 first-year student members
  • 1700-19002 ft per site
  • 8 senior peer leaders (Collegia Advisors)
  • 1 faculty member (Collegia Prof)

The first Vancouver collegium opened in September 2013 at Ponderosa Commons as part of a new student housing build. Through a continued partnership with UBC Student Housing & Community Services to include Collegia in the design of new student housing projects, in August 2019 we opened our fifth and sixth Collegia sites dedicated to supporting first-year commuter students. August 2019 also marked the opening of the seventh site in partnership with the First Nations House of Learning to support Indigenous students on campus. One additional site is planned, with the goal to offer every first-year student at UBC Vancouver access to a space in residence, or a space in Collegia, by 2021.

Program Model

“[Collegia was] a place that I could be really familiar with on campus… I knew I could come here and have friends here. I know there’s someone here who would smile and say hi. It’s a safe place. Campus is really big, there’s always things changing, but Collegia is always kind of the same supportive environment, which is great to come back to.” – Anastasia, Collegium Member 2018-19

We know that social belonging is a fundamental human need (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) that also has positive outcomes for students’ wellbeing and success, particularly for students who may already be more likely to experience social isolation (Walton & Cohen, 2011). We also know that students who form reciprocated relationships with peers report greater attachment to the university and achieve higher GPAs (Khalis, Mikami, & Hudec, 2017).

Designed to encourage a sense of belonging, each collegium offers students a place to find friends, study with classmates, prepare lunch, and relax between classes, student club activities, or group meetings. Collegia Advisors, eight senior undergraduate students who are trained as peer advisors, staff each collegium and are responsible for planning events, offering mentorship, making referrals, and providing resources and information to help new students make a successful transition to UBC.

Beginning with Jump Start, the academic orientation and transition program at UBC-Vancouver, students are sorted into small groups and connected to a senior peer leader. For students who commute, all members of their small group are assigned to the same collegium site and their senior peer leader is one of the Collegia Advisors for that site. This allows student cohorts to continue the relationships built during their formative orientation and transition time throughout their first year and beyond.

Each collegium also has an attached Collegia Prof, who gets to know students individually, hosts office hours, and generally demystifies ‘the university professor.’ They give students guidance on how to approach projects and assignments, where to find scholarly resources, strategies for instructors’ office hours, and how to study for exams.

UBC Vancouver is proud to support commuter students and we look forward to opening our seventh Collegia site in 2021.