Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mission Accomplished, Theory in Doubt. Nathan: Not?

Western in snow!
College kids are just as civic minded as anybody else, and getting more so all the time.  Between my trip up to Western to comments and emails from college students in response to my review of My Freshman Year to the chapter I just read in Jonathan Tisch's Citizen You, I've come to believe that either times have changed since 2002 or Nathan's college students are quite a different cohort than many others across the nation, and that civic-mindedness and contribution are likely on the upswing, despite the many obstacles to connection that Nathan noted.

Maybe the students at "AnyU" in northern Arizona are atypically solipsistic, stressed out, and non-community-minded, or maybe the students I met at Western just happen to be more friendly, community-focused, and "hippie-ish" - as one student clepped Western's rep - than your average college kids, but my brief foray "up the hill" painted quite a different picture than what Ms. Nathan wrought in My Freshman Year (review linked here).

What picture is that?
To start, let's talk travel.  On the two buses I took each way, WWU students were friendly with the drivers and passengers, and each and every one thanked the driver when he/she got off.  In fact, I was surprised to note that students live as far as 15 miles from campus, where they participate in the life of their suburban neighborhoods.  That's a positive-integration switch-up from Nathan's dorm-based experience right there.

Then on campus, I noticed regular gestures of politeness and consideration that to me imply a sense of community, of actively noticing other people and offering willingness to help them when the need arises:  When I alit at Viking Union, students parted to let us off the bus, and one even reached out to grab a young woman who slipped on the ice as she headed toward the book store.  While on campus, every door was held for me, even if the student had to wait until I caught up, and eyes were met with smiles again and again. After a time, I began to wonder if students were offering polite gestures because they thought I was a prof., so I hid by the side door at Wilson library, just inside the anti-book-theft beeper gizmo: with rare exception, students showed that it's just the custom at Western to offer such gestures of politeness to one another as well. 

Small considerations? Sure.  But combined and practiced as habit, they produce an atmosphere of connectedness and community, an atmosphere presumably not present at AnyU.

Mmmm... Wilson.  My fave entrance.
Could these just be surface manifestations of Western's particular college culture?  Of course.  But I tend to believe that they reflect the larger community here as well:  When we first moved from the SF Bay area, we were genuinely surprised and heartened by the outgoingness and interest in others exhibited by nearly everyone we met.  So I wonder, too, if the students at AnyU reflect(ed) the larger culture of Arizona, perhaps a more closed, self-focused one?  (Current events and then the coverage about recent political/civic history in AZ might lead one to ponder...)

While at Wilson, I wandered from one huge lounge area to another and again felt a sense of welcome from students as most raised their eyes and smiled when I passed.  I sat down for a bit at the only empty table in the whole reference section (those WWU students must be some serious studiers because the library's every nook and cranny was packed with quiet souls pouring over textbooks, jotting notes, or earnestly researching online).  And there I read both The Western Front student newspaper and the winter 2011 issue of Klipsun, an independent student-run magazine, this edition featuring the theme "Dirt".  Over half of the articles in TWF and nearly all the articles in Klipsun featured links to the larger community here, demonstrating that student journalists make efforts to get out into our county, and again indicating an at least implied sense that their natural "turf" extends well beyond campus boundaries. 

Brief Trip? Sure.  Conclusive? Not.  Heartening? Yup.
So there's a few minutes spent, and a different picture of student attitudes emerging.  Now, I'm not saying that one brief visit provides enough substance to counter a school-year long investigation, but I do think that what I learned on my journey is cause enough to reconsider the notion that most college students just don't care much about engaging with their communities. 

Stay tuned for even more evidence that the tide of student engagement is turning when I review Citizen You in a day or two...

MFB in the community,

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