Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My take on town-gown

I work in an elite, private four-year research institution. I'm an arts administrator who has many webs of responsibilities, all toward encouraging folks to develop their own relationship with art, culture and their personal creative process. In order to do that, I connect to the experiences on campus and in the local community. There is no boundary of campus map that limits the connections I see; only driven by the experiences that I believe will communicate between people. As much as I preach, I practice.

When I was a college student, I went to a small liberal arts college with a music conservatory. The school didn't offer summer courses, but after my sophomore year, I decided to stay on campus to earn as much money as I could working on the grounds crew in the day and tending bar at night. I took daily 20 mile bike rides to a nearby state park when I needed to take a break from practicing. The time I spent at Pat's Tap was when I started to make friends with some of the "townies." I think I surprised a few of them with my interest in having conversation with them. I love conversation, especially when I might learn a new perspective about an issue I don't quite understand.

The townies told me a lot about Appleton. They showed me where Harry Houdini and Senator McCarthy were buried. I went to fish boils, I rode my bike around many neighborhoods, willing to get lost and find my way back to campus. Most of the conversations were about nothing important; sports, politics, music, beer. I taught a lot of music appreciation every time someone asked me what instrument I played. It got to where I carried a picture of it in my wallet. You don't often see bassoons.

It was so nice to not talk with my classmates at the conservatory for a while. Musicians can be so insular; and we whine to each other about the long hours and the critical minutia of music theory or counterpoint.

It was in these moments when I learned about relating to people NOT like me, that I felt at home.

Jump back to the present. I get to see the same awakening for some students every year. I think the community forgets that the students never age, but we do. Each year, we have a new group of students who have yet to realize that the community is a place full of wonder and opportunity to find themselves in unfamiliar environments. But it takes a bit of maturity, adventure, and risk to break out of a structured life of classes, clubs, and dormitories. When students rent in apartments near campus; they are still in the structure. Adventures into town are more on a dare. Maybe their posse is going to see what mischief happens in the local pub scene. They are insular. But some are ready to be independent of that structure.

Some students find internships with local organizations or businesses. The begin to interact with people outside of classroom or dorms. The simple conversations of where they are from, their majors, their professors, can easily turn into chats about life in the community; where are the best places to eat, to go on a first date, to escape campus stress... This is where civic engagement takes on a personal meaning for students. This civic engagement can lead to great things for the students; their own value of community.

The university still makes a huge effort to introduce students to the community; to encourage them to become regular customers of local businesses, to experience local culture. But we also need to be patient with the students. When they are ready, they will venture out. Or not. It's still up to them. I only hope they do, as much as I hope they learn how to drink responsibly, eat healthfully, sleep, wash their hands, and learn that the world is not about them.

As I get older, I hear myself starting to sound like the cranky old lady next door. I just hope that I continue to remember the courage it took me to start talking to townies the summer before my 3rd year in college.

#48 of 90in90 for #LUBlogTribe

1 comment:

  1. Bars do seem to be the best place for these two worlds connect, which of course does not really help the new students. Does First Friday offer something special for Lehigh Students? Perhaps a scavenger hunt with prizes at the end.