You see them in parking lots, in classes and in passing. With only 4,500 beds available, many students must travel to school each day. Fully 80 percent of the student body has lived off campus at some point or continues to do so.

This is the challenge that faces the newly created Office of Off-Campus Student Programs and Services: How can an extremely diverse group of students — from all age ranges and all backgrounds — feel they’re getting a similar university experience as their on-campus peers?

“[Many off-campus students] catch a shuttle, get in the car, go to the academic building and then leave,” said Scott Blevins, the assistant director of Patriot Leader Initiatives within Orientation, Family Programs and Services. Blevins has been tasked with overseeing the new office that will reach out to off-campus students and tailor programs to meet their needs.

“The hard part is getting past the word ‘commuter’ and its negative implications,” Blevins said. “You’re going to get all kinds of answers from students when you ask them about their time at Mason, from ‘I love it’ to ‘This is an expanded high school where I go to class’ and everything in between.”

The hardest part is getting the word out to off-campus students.

“[I’m] somewhat a part of [the Mason] community,” said junior finance major Benny Aksoylu, an off-campus student. “I come to class. Then I go. I don’t usually stick around. If I see something interesting, I’ll check it out. The only place I can see people trying to promote clubs is in the JC. If I’m not at the JC, I don’t see that motivation to get fellow students to participate.”

But many have found a way to fit in just fine.

“I’m a graduate student, so yes, I’m very connected with my program,” said Chris Cooper, who studies human factors and applied cognition in the Department of Psychology. “From what I have found, many programs that are offered are inclusive. As a commuter student, I don’t feel deprived from campus life.”

Blevins began working with off-campus students when he was an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. There, Blevins faced a different set of challenges, like dealing with landlord-student relations on off-campus properties and finding ways that students could feel like they were more a part of the off-campus community in Oxford, a town of over 20,000 residents near Cincinnati.

Despite these challenges and discussions on how to deal with them, Blevins and his staff — consisting of four students who act as undergraduate advisers alongside a graduate assistant — have directed most of their energy toward creating more programs for off-campus students that allow them to connect with the university.

One of the most successful initiatives has been the 24/7 study lounge available to off-campus students in George’s Restaurant during Finals Week. In fall 2010, for example, the lounge received 1,000 unique visitors. By fall 2011, there were 1,500 unique visitors, Blevins said.

The success of this program was part of the impetus for The Ridge, a new student lounge that will open soon in the space formerly occupied by Corner Pocket. This new space, which will be open during the late-night hours when the Johnson Center is closed, is primarily for off-campus students, though any Mason student is free to use it.

Blevins and his staff were also behind screenings of “Jackass 3-D” and “Gnomeo and Juliet” that played drive-in style last year in one of the parking lots on a 30-foot blow-up screen. They also hit the parking lots some mornings as part of a program called High-Five—which takes place every weekday that ends in a five—offering coffee and breakfast items to connect with off-campus students. The afternoon portion of High-Five frequently tries something new, from local mechanics offering safe winter travel tips to the game show event in the JC last week.

“We didn’t know what to expect [Thursday, Feb. 16],” Blevins said of the game show event held in the JC Atrium on Wednesday. The event, called Guess for Gas, had contestants use their knowledge of music, movies and television shows to compete for $250 worth of gas cards. “It was phenomenal. The greatest sign of success were the students hanging off the balconies, watching from the second and third floors.”

On April 5, the office will bring in mentalist Chris Carter to perform in the JC atrium.

“In the mornings, I ask if they know who we are,” said Vianney Torres, a junior math major who has lived off campus all three years she has attended Mason and serves as one of the four undergraduate advisers in the office. “They think that there’s a catch [to the programs offered by the new office]. When they hear there isn’t, they’re like, ‘Oh? Really?’ And that really warms my heart because I remember feeling like nobody cared about me. So when I tell someone that, I know we’re reaching them.”

Another major initiative — how to connect with off-campus freshmen who have not had a chance to find a niche at Mason — has been undertaken by the undergraduate advisers. To this end, they have met with 20 percent of the new student population this semester to find out their concerns.

“These students are surprised they get somebody to talk to,” said Torres. “Their concerns were a lot about missing out. Their time is limited due to transportation, family obligations, lack of ability to attend meetings of campus groups.”

Torres said many off-campus students manage to enjoy the best of both worlds.

“They get the college experience while still being able to be connected with family. They get the freedom of not being on campus seven days a week, and a lot of them appreciate that freedom,” said Torres.

Torres said the biggest challenge facing her as an adviser to these students is scheduling.

“There are a lot of schedules for these students,” said Torres. “Family schedules, transportation schedules, activity schedules.”

Torres said some of these students struggle to adapt to university life.

“Some of the girls said, ‘I have no friends.’ They struggle to meet people on campus,” said Torres. “If you think you are missing out on the college experience, you tend to feel like you can’t relate to those who live on campus. We’re here to teach you that you go home to sleep, while others go to dorms — otherwise, you have the same chances and opportunities as other students.”