I went to college "back east" in a suburb of a large city, and did my grad work at a huge university in a huge city in a foreign country. In neither setting did I, as a student, even think about being a part of the broader "community." I was there temporarily, was not even thinking about making a life for myself there, and thus was focused on getting the most out of my experiences on campus. While I went to the movies, and occasionally to a play or other cultural performance, and once or twice partook in a religious experience off-campus, I never thought about developing a network of friends or experiences away from the university.
But the place that I teach now is very different from those locations. We are in a small town (17,000+) and the university is by far the largest employer in this quadrant of the state. While there are some local students, most come from elsewhere, and many of them will be just like me, almost never going off campus except to go out for dinner or a movie or perhaps Christmas shopping. The university does some things to make sure that our students do participate with local activities -- students can do work study or volunteer in community agencies, tutor in the schools and teach ESL at night after closing in some of the Mexican restaurants in town, and many attend churches, put up their artwork in local restaurants and coffee shops, and start small businesses (from a hookah bar to a dance studio to baking for sale at the Farmers' Market). There are big projects each year, days set aside for service, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and on a weekend in March called "The Big Event." The latter is a chance for anyone in town to have students come and do work for them and is not limited to non-profit organizations. Students paint houses, cut down bushes and rake leaves (no power tools can be involved), move furniture, and pick up trash along the highway and streets through town. There are well over a thousand students involved in this project, and it does get students out to interact with people they might not otherwise talk to.
I don't know that this involvement is enough, and I do know there is always more participation and interaction that can be encouraged. While many of the students are only here for four (or five, or six) years, others choose to stay, and some, while they are here, can make a tremendous impact on the place they are for more than half the year. The idea of North Carolina, that you don't want to encourage students to be a part of the community at their college location, is very very sad.
Follow me below the orange cloverleaf intersection for some thoughts on what I have done for community interaction below.
I do have a certain visceral distaste for the term "service learning" as it implies this is something different from any other kind. Perhaps better, perhaps just different, but something that should be separated out from any other sort of education. But working with off-campus constituencies for bettering the community is an important thing. I see it as a part of our "mission" even though it is not directly in the official statement. We are a public liberal arts university. Public is first. That means (to me) that our constituency is not just the university and its students; it is the state as well. We train nurses and teachers, and many of them work in rural locations. That is a good and important thing. But even those who never come back to a town of under 20,000 (which for here is the big town!) are serving the broader community.
I decided to focus on service as a major component of the Museums class I taught two years ago (and will be teaching in the fall of this coming year). I had students required to do two projects, one each half of the semester, and one of the projects was volunteering at one of the local museums/galleries, including the arts association and the historical society. Another assignment for the class was to write a grant application or a policy for a local organization -- acquisitions policy, loan policy, work plan for volunteers. A third opportunity for interaction with the community was the major project for the class, one the students could design based on their own interests. No one chose to work off campus, except for one who could not finish the class during the semester and did a display for her local library at home over the summer (one on vintage clothing). I am hoping to provide students with more contacts and more of a push to get off campus to do exhibits. After the semester is over I will talk with the local public library, for example, about designing temporary exhibits and "suitcase exhibits" that can be taken out and put away during an hour's time. These could deal with local history or geology, perhaps. I would like to take students on a field trip to the Missouri Department of Conservation local office, which has a nature trail and interpretive center. I don't know if they have volunteer opportunities there, but I will find out.
Preparing the class has gotten me out and into the community in ways I have not gone before. And that has reminded me how very important the setting is to the university experience (for both teachers and students). There are opportunities to make an impact in my town that students would never get in a big city. If someone volunteers at the history museum, for example, he or she will do everything -- from answering emails and letters about geneological searches, to being a docent (and museum guard!), to accessioning objects, installing exhibits, and writing condition reports. All of these things are important to the museum, and will be good skills to have in the future if they decide they want to go into a career in museums.
So with this being a win/win situation, why am I using the term "town/gown" in the title of this, which implies a rather contentious relationship? There is one in my town, on both sides. There are a lot of snide remarks on students' facebook pages about the town in which we live, and some of them are really completely unjustified. They are kids, of course, and a 19- or 20-year old has strong ideas about the way the world should be and can be really annoyed if it isn't that way, or if someone doesn't agree with him or her that is the way things should It leads to some comments that I would bet will be embarrassing in ten years when they look back at the things they said in school (if they do). But there are town issues as well. We have heard "They shouldn't be allowed to vote" about the college kids (most prominently in 2008, but in other elections as well -- in fact, there seems to be real concern that college kids will skew the spring city council elections, even though the ward in which the university is located regularly has the lowest percentage of voters in town). One of my fondest memories is from back when I was trying to furnish my kitchen by going to auctions for old pots and pans and I wanted to look at a set of measuring spoons the assistant held in his hands, and was going to be the next item up. I tried to get his attention and then asked him a question, which he either didn't hear or didn't understand. The elderly lady standing next to me put a hand on my lower arm and said, quite sympathetically, "He doesn't know anything, dear. He's at the college."
I love my town in the summer, when the town is quiet. I am a townie myself, although with a life centered around "the college." I am glad when there are relatively fewer people in town and am nervous about the day crazy kids who don't know how to drive but have brand new fast and expensive cars show up in town to run red lights. But in the summer, the students who stay in town continue to make a difference, running the summer programs through the parks department, picking up compost material for their farms (the "rot riders"), and growing, baking, and selling things at the Farmers' Market. This would be a much poorer town if they weren't here, and they lose out if they don't realize how special a community they have once they get off campus and wander around the town itself.
In my class this fall I hope to encourage more students to explore the town, think about life beyond the campus, and perhaps leave a lasting impression on both the "town" and "gown" constituencies.
Comments, as always, are most welcome!