These commuter students often pose a challenge for Catholic campus ministers, said Marie Brennan, assistant campus minister at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. It’s difficult for campus ministers to reach out to and connect with these students, largely because they don’t often spend much time on campus over the weekends, she said. Catholic students who commute often continue to attend Mass at their hometown parishes, rather than driving back to campus on their days off to attend Mass there, agreed Margot VanEtten, campus minister at SUNY Brockport’s Newman Catholic Campus Ministry.
Commuters are less accessible than students who live on campus, but neither VanEtten nor Brennan consider these students out of sight and out of mind, they said. VanEtten said she makes it a point to hold at least some of the ministry’s events during the week instead of over the weekend.
"We’re trying to make a point of letting (commuters) know you don’t have to be here during the weekend to be part of the community," she said.
Campus ministers at St. John Fisher have done the same thing. Deacon Tom Jewell, director of liturgy and music, has started meeting regularly with student representatives from the school’s Commuter Council, Brennan said.
"He is really hoping to gain the commuter perspective on different events and when to offer them. It’s always a struggle to find suitable times for different events just because all their schedules are totally different," she said.
In the past, St. John Fisher’s campus ministry has offered special events, such as pizza lunches, specifically for commuters, Brennan added. These events give campus ministers a chance to meet commuters and develop personal relationships with them, she said.
Campus ministers at both St. John Fisher and SUNY Brockport also rely heavily on the Internet to draw in students.
"We’re finding that one of the essential tools for any type of campus ministry is the Web," VanEtten said.
Brockport’s campus ministry has a Facebook page, and VanEtten often sends group e-mails to all the students on her contact list. And St. John Fisher’s e-mail system allows campus ministers to send mass e-mails to commuters and residents alike, Brennan noted.
"That’s part of the outreach, and sometimes it doesn’t feel as satisfying to me as a face-to-face conversation," VanEtten said.
Many of today’s college students, however, have grown up using e-mail, and this form of communication seems to satisfy their need for interaction, she said.
"People really react as if we have had a face-to-face conversation," VanEtten observed.
Campus ministers also try to respond to the needs of older students who are not in their late teens or early 20s and have gone back to school to complete or expand their education. Brennan said it can be hard to reach these students because not only do they not live on campus, but they already have full lives outside of the college. Many of them already are established in their own parishes and have jobs, spouses and children, unlike many of their younger fellow students.
"They are involved with their own communities outside of school. A lot of them just come to school for school," she said.
This is not true across the board, however, VanEtten noted. Several slightly older students live just off campus at the campus ministry’s Newman House, a residence that houses several students and the campus ministry’s offices. This quiet residence is another way the ministry reaches out, and it’s perfect for students who aren’t interested in living in the dormitories on campus, VanEtten said.
"It’s not a party house. It’s a nice community. There’s a lot of support for one another. It’s much quieter than living in the dorm or the average student apartments," she said.
Newman House is currently home to a handful of students of varying ages and backgrounds, and it’s traditionally been appealing to graduate students and transfer students, who sometimes enter the college partway through the academic year, VanEtten said.
"Transfer students often tend to be a little older and a little more focused," she said. "A lot of times when you get first- and second-year students they tend to be experimenting with different kinds of things, but by the time you get to third or fourth year, you’re a little more focused."