Getting Commuter Students Off to a ‘Great Start’

By Ashley A. Williams

Getting Commuter Students Off to a ‘Great Start’

By Ashley A. Williams
Using first-hand experience, two students spearhead a pre-orientation program designed to prepare first-year commuter students for their freshman year.

Andrea Candelaria and Rafael “Rafa” Cariello know from first-hand experience what it is like to be a commuter student at the University of Miami. When the two South Florida natives enrolled at UM three years ago as freshmen, they had to quickly learn how to overcome many of the challenges commuter students face, from waking up early enough to make it to class on time to getting involved in on-campus activities with other students who live in the Residential Colleges. 

“You have to work twice as hard,” explained Cariello. “Sometimes I am on campus from 8 a.m. to midnight. I will have to come to school prepared for the entire day with three to four outfits, whereas if you’re living on campus you don’t have to really worry about that.”   

Now, the two rising seniors are using their experience as commuter students to help others in the same boat, working as program coordinators in Great Start, an overnight pre-orientation program designed to create a college adjustment and campus involvement experience for new students living off campus in their first year. 

Each year UM welcomes nearly 300 first-year commuter students, and Great Start, an initiative of the Department of Orientation and Commuter Student Involvement, recently hosted 69 of those newcomers. 

Candelaria and CarielloCandelaria and Cariello began their roles in the program in September of 2017. Once they survived the rigorous application process to become program coordinators, they adjusted into their new titles quickly by handpicking their counselors and fellows. 

The hardworking pair behind Great Start attended the program upon enrolling into the University in 2015.  

“When I applied to UM, I never pictured myself having a leadership role in this department,” Candelaria said. “This has been a highlight of my college experience. I am blessed to work with this office and thankful for all of their resources.”   

Great Start gives those who attend a head start and immediately welcomes freshman to their new home away from home. Cariello and Candelaria are passionate about wanting others to feel that way too. Stephanie Fleitas, assistant director of the Department of Orientation and Commuter Student Involvement, also participated in Great Start when she was an incoming undergraduate

“Being in this position, everything has come full circle, and it’s great to see students still benefiting from this program,” Fleitas said. “Even though they are living at home, we are here to show them that their life doesn’t have to be a routine.” 

For many commuter students, there comes a time when parents or caregivers begin to experience separation anxiety. So both Candelaria and Cariello give first-year commuter students tips on how to deal with this transition. One of their best pieces of advice to students: Bring your new friends home to meet the family.   

“I really started to spend more and more time on campus during my sophomore year. My family and I are close, so at first they were salty but they realized that not only was I happy but I was establishing lasting relationships,” Candelaria said.   

When Cariello began coming home later and later, he sat down with his mom to help her understand his new life by printing out his class schedule to give her a perspective of what a commuter student experiences. 

“She knows when I’m leaving and returning because of the alarm system,” he says. “I told her that if I were away I could be spending time out all night and she wouldn’t even know. This helps to establish trust between us.”   

Cariello is a huge advocate for first-year commuter students attending Great Start because he knows that it will enhance their experience. Surprisingly, UM was not his first college choice, but once he enrolled with an open mind and attended Great Start, he knew he had made the right decision.   

“I didn’t understand how much of an incredible University this was,” Cariello said as he admitted to overlooking the illustrious campus because it was in his own backyard. “I tell high school students who ask me for advice all the time that this ended up being the best-case scenario.”   

Candelaria’s story is quite different. 

“UM was my first choice,” she said. “My parents came here and I remember attending football games as a child and dressing up as a UM cheerleader when I was younger. This was my dream school and it’s surreal to think that I am now getting ready to graduate from here.”   

Both Cariello and Candelaria agree that it is important for the commuter student population to stick together. Everyone involved in the program takes prides in creating a community and culture for commuter students. The duo also recommends joining the Association of Commuter Students (ACS) for a “strong network of spirited University of Miami students and alumni.” 

Two overnight weekend sessions of Great Start were offered July 7-8 and July 21-22 to acclimate students with the campus and meet other commuter students who are from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Once the registration fee of $85 ($75 for the early bird special) was accepted, students participated in a fun-filled, information-packed weekend, attending information sessions, going on campus tours, playing dodgeball, and going on an adventurous scavenger hunt.