Leaders keep city commuters in Loop

By Alexandra Kukulka

The lack of sororities, fraternities and sporting events at Columbia may make it difficult to get involved around campus—especially if a student is a first-year commuter traveling to and from campus everyday.

In an effort to build a sense of belonging and community for commuters, Columbia created its new Exploration Leaders program to connect those who live off campus to a strong student network that pursues engaging activities, as reported in The Chronicle’s Orientation issue.

“All freshman commuter students who live in the city are assigned an exploration leader,” said Melinda McIntire, assistant director of New Student Programs and Orientation. “[It’s similar to] how a residence assistant is to a residence hall floor. They are all assigned based on where they live.”

There are eight leaders currently enrolled in the program.

The exploration leaders are responsible for taking commuters to an on-campus event and an off-campus event. These events are not mandatory, according to McIntire.

The leaders also have Tumblr pages and keep “office hours,” when they are available to meet with commuters face-to-face in the library on the fourth floor.

According to Cozetta Smith, one of the South Loop and West Side exploration leaders, this is the first year the program has been up and running. Every week, the leaders email with the commuters and update their Tumblr pages.

However, the program is new and Columbia commuters are not fully aware of it, according to Smith.

“[The program] has been a little slow,” she said. “I don’t think people are fully aware of exactly what our role is yet, just because it is super brand new.”

Smith noted an increase in participation in events and more communication between commuters, so she believes the program is picking up and will be better known by the spring semester.

The program is very beneficial for commuter students who need help getting adjusted when they are far away from campus, Smith said.

“I think this is a very smart program,” she said. “I just think there are things that we need to take into account and sort of change, maybe do a 180 [degrees] on the whole program just to get people really excited and interested [in] it.”

On the other hand, Gabby Stinnett, exploration leader for the South Side, believes that the Tumblr pages and emailing with students has been effective with keeping commuters informed and involved.

“Because they aren’t on campus at all times, having a Facebook page and a Tumblr page gives them a connection through social media,” Stinnett said. “For them to see the different events that are going on around Columbia through their computer is amazing because sometimes they don’t have an opportunity to look at the Tally-Ho [newsletter] on the elevators, or see different posters on the wall because they are coming to class and going straight home.”

The Exploration Leaders program is beneficial to freshman photography major Michael Moore, who checks his email frequently for events and tries attending as many events as possible—especially music-related ones.

“Without [Exploration Leaders], I probably wouldn’t go into half of the buildings, just to see what’s in them,” Moore said. “And [the program] helps me communicate with a lot of students [who] I wouldn’t get to meet.”

Exploration Leaders are helping commuter students from different parts of Chicago. What they don’t do is help commuters from the suburbs, though there is talk of starting such a program, McIntire said.

“When the program first started, [suburban commuters] were not put on our list,” Smith said. “Since we have such a slow start, we’ve sort of begun to include them.”

According to Smith, suburban commuters have access to the site, and they can participate in any events that are posted, or talk to a leader. If the program grows and expands, then suburban commuters will be officially included in the program, Smith said. To keep the program going, all commuter students to take advantage of the program, Smith added.

“We definitely do want to expand to suburban students,” McIntire said. “It would be [approximately] twice the number of students, so we wanted to see how we could launch the program here in the city and then go from there.”

If suburban commuters want to get involved, they can receive a newsletter with every event that the exploration leaders are doing, so they are more than welcome to join and follow the program, McIntire added.

“We are hoping [commuters] are able to meet people,” McIntire said.“That’s what our students have been frustrated about. It’s hard to get involved on campus and be able to meet other students and have opportunities for that. Resident students have their RAs for programming and have opportunities through Residence Life, so [Exploration Leaders] aresupplementing that. “