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If you live off campus or take classes online, you may feel disconnected from the college community. You’re not right there on location. You may be significantly older or younger than your classmates. You probably have family stuff, work stuff, and other stuff demanding your time and attention. Still, feeling connected to college makes for a more satisfying experience and can be a key element of success, experts say.

“The key to staying in college for all students, regardless of your background or identity, is making sure you take as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself with your campus both academically and socially,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management at San Francisco State University, California.

We asked experts and off-campus students how to connect. You don’t need to do everything, they said; just do something. “At first, I went to college and straight home. However, I found that just attending events made a world of difference in the quality of my experience. You do not have to be super-involved,” says a fourth-year “older” student at Georgia Gwinnett College.

“Look up from your phone and interact with people. You can only get so much from texting.”
—Jason Enser, Dean for Student Affairs, State University of New York, Adirondack

“Regularly say ‘hello!’ to your professors and advisor by stopping by or making an appointment. The more students can connect on a basic level, the more likely they are to know who to turn to when they need something important.”
—Dr. Amy Baldwin, director, University College, University of Central Arkansas; author, The Community College Experience (Pearson, 2012)

“Make an effort to meet at least one new person in each class.”
—Second-year graduate student, Utah State University

“Choose different partners for projects as often as you can!”
—2016 graduate, certificate program, St. Clair College, Ontario

“The best strategy I have for feeling connected is to not walk around campus with headphones in. Headphones deter conversations; you could be missing out on great friendships.”
—Fourth-year student, Portland State University, Oregon

“Reach out to your student government association and ask them what programs they have for online students.”
—Jason Enser, Dean for Student Affairs, State University of New York, Adirondack

“Consistent participation in group discussions and not being shy to initiate an email were important steps [for me].”
—2016 graduate, Empire State College (online), New York

“I used Blackboard as a tool to communicate with students in my class and introduce myself and set up study groups.”
—Fourth-year student, University of New Mexico

“If you live close to someone you are in an online class with, meet up for coffee.”
—Third-year graduate student (online), Governors State University, Illinois

“I go to school online and live in a different state. I have purchased a few college items (like T-shirts) to help me feel connected. I’ve also learned a bit about the physical university campus and town.”
—Second-year graduate student, Fort Hays State University, Kansas

Find out what resources your college offers. There may be a commuter advisor program, commuter-resident partnership program, or neighborhood student advisory program. In addition, talk to your advisor, faculty, staff, and established students. When you find someone with whom you have a promising connection, ask if they’re up for a regular coffee and check-in.

“Research studies have shown that at least one connection with a faculty, staff, or administrator makes a big difference in a student’s success.”
—Dr. Amy Baldwin, director, University College,  University of Central Arkansas; author, The Community College Experience (Pearson, 2012)

 “Have a mentor or buddy to help you navigate, and check in at least monthly. Something specifically nontraditional and for veteran students would’ve been extremely helpful [to me].”
—Second-year graduate student (online), Clemson University, South Carolina

“I would like to have had a mentor to help and give me advice in terms of the classes mostly, but also general time management and social life. Now I serve as mentor for new grad students. I wish I also had one four years ago.”
—Fourth-year graduate student, University of Delaware

“Since my university consists mostly of commuters, creating relationships in the classroom helps me feel connected in a variety of ways.”
—Fourth-year student, University of Alaska Anchorage

“Make friends with people in your major [or program]; get their numbers and emails and add them on Facebook. You’ll likely have a lot of classes together, and you’ll have each other’s back when someone has to miss class or has questions.”
—First-year graduate student, Wayne State University, Michigan

“Form a study group. It makes studying more fun and makes it easier to go to class when you have personal connections.”
—First-year graduate student, University of Wyoming

“Taking the simple initiative of making a group chat for all of your classes will enable everyone to get help 24/7, and gives you the feeling that you’re not alone.”
—Second-year student, Wayne State University, Michigan

Routinely check these sources to see what’s going on around school:

  • Bulletin boards and posters
  • School emails and social media
  • Student association websites and emails

“If you have time between classes, go to the student center and play pool sometimes. There’s more to campus than the library.”
—Jason Enser, Dean for Student Affairs, State University of New York, Adirondack

“Participate in as many campus activities as possible in the short timeframe between being on campus and having to rush to work.”
—Third-year student, Florida International University

“I am a returning student, and was quite challenged at first. I started a club on campus and continue to promote for new members. This was a way I could connect, bring a special message, and create new and improved connections for other students, both on campus and in the community. I love my school!”
—Fourth-year student, Red Rocks Community College, Colorado (age 56–65)

“Becoming a club leader has really helped. The more involved I become on campus the happier I have been because I’ve met people I never would have had the chance to meet if I only made friends within my cohort of nursing students.”
—Fourth-year student, Grand View University, Iowa

“Find something that you are passionate about and find a group of students who are also passionate about it. This is where you will find the most opportunity and social growth.”
—Fifth-year student, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

“If you have to work, [try to] get a job on campus rather than off-campus.”
—Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management, San Francisco State University, California

“Look for open positions on campus. Those jobs keep you there where the action (and the support) is, and your campus network will grow much more quickly.”
—Recent graduate, Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts

“Live close to campus if you can. Commuting [may not be] worth saving the money.”
—Second-year student, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado

“Never just drive to school. Get out of your car.”
—First-year graduate student, University of Memphis, Tennessee

“Commuting via train is your friend.”
—2016 graduate, certificate program, California State University, Stanislaus

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Article sources

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D., director, University College, University of Central Arkansas; author, The Community College Experience (Pearson, 2012).

Jason Enser, MS, Dean for Student Affairs, State University of New York, Adirondack.

Luoluo Hong, PhD, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management, San Francisco State University.

Christie, N. G., & Dinham, S. M. (1991). Institutional and external influences on social integration in the freshman year. Journal of Higher Education, 62(4), 412–436.

Student Health 101 survey, May 2016