Bridging the Town-Gown Gap

Here at Amherst, we take the notion of community pretty seriously. With a student body of fewer than 2,000 students, there’s a certain pressure to appear tightly knit to the outside world. The spaces in which we live, study, eat and hang out are engineered to optimize interaction and collaboration. For instance, Chief of Campus Operations Jim Brassord recently told The Student that having “a singular space where students can come together in community” is a driving factor in the plan to build a new student center. Amherst life revolves around the idea of community.

Within the college, the emphasis on community is a great thing. It compels students to join clubs and teams that they may not have otherwise. However, beyond the campus borders, the college’s community translates more to an Amherst bubble.

Most people are pretty familiar with this phenomenon. The Amherst bubble is that intangible but nonetheless real experience students inadvertently fall into. It involves getting attached to a daily routine, going to the same places and talking to the same people, all while losing perspective about the rest of the world. The bubble comes with the college experience — and it isn’t exclusive to Amherst. Put a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds on a little over 1,000 acres of land with all of their necessities and amenities at a half-mile radius away, and the area is bound to become a quarantine.

It may seem like the Amherst bubble is a necessary evil to solidify our campus community; after all, if the notion of community hinges on its members sharing something in common, doesn’t that necessitate excluding those who do not possess that commonality? In some sense, this may hold a seed of truth. However, the bubble forms out of a tunnel vision perception of what a college community actually is. A simple reframing of how the college approaches the notion of community might be the trigger for finally beginning to burst that bubble.

Despite our feelings, the college does not exist in a void. It’s nested in a town where people raise families, run businesses and volunteer. Although this is not news to anyone, the way in which the college community engages with the town speaks to the nature of the Amherst bubble.

The college’s attitude towards the Town of Amherst is best encapsulated by its website’s description of the “Town & Valley.” It proudly advertises all of the activities in town that enhance college life, writing that “[t]he small sampling below will give you an idea of how much there is to enjoy here.” It goes on to list museums, coffee shops and other gems that students have come to love. But this presentation of the town reeks of the bubble effect. Though right next door, the college’s neighbors in the Town of Amherst are not seen as part of the community. Instead, the town is presented as a vendor of services college students can take from — without any sense of an obligation to give back.

And yet, stated in Amherst’s Committee of Academic Priorities (CAP) report from 2006 is the following: “Amherst has an obligation to work for the good of our surrounding communities.” This sentiment has evidently been lost on us. Now, the town is seen as more of a playground rather than the community that it is. The report goes on to acknowledge this in saying, “Amherst has done too little to connect public-service experience with the curriculum.” Evidently, the Amherst bubble was a recognized problem in 2006, but it has yet to be solved.

If the ideal of the Amherst community is reconceived to include the surrounding town, however, the Amherst bubble may begin to deflate. After all, the town is connected to statewide and federal systems that inherently link it to the rest of the world. Facilitating a more symbiotic relationship with the Town of Amherst at an institutional level may be the needle that pops the Amherst bubble.

On the surface, the college has no official institutional or legal obligation to give back to its surrounding town in a formal capacity. However, it is not unprecedented for a private college to help its neighbors in the name of civic duty. As seen in the CAP report, it is a value that Amherst wants to uphold, but has done too little to execute. But take Colby College in Waterville, Maine. According to its Office of Communications, Colby has invested $75 million worth of projects intended to revitalize the town of Waterville. The college also reports that Colby students volunteer an annual average of 40,000 hours of community service to Waterville and surrounding communities. Plus, the symbiosis that Colby created with Waterville became an admissions selling point. Being a part of a community that extends beyond higher education is an attraction for students who want to be civically engaged — one of the very values Amherst cherishes on its campus.

The concept of colleges and towns working together is known as town-gown collaboration. The University-Town of Amherst Collaborative (UTAC), a committee composed of UMass Amherst officials and students as well as town residents who worked together to tackle problems related to economic development and housing, is one example. The UTAC shows that the town wants to work with its colleges to make life better for all Amherst residents — students or not.

The college’s duty to collaborate with the Town of Amherst is not mandatory, but this board highly encourages such an endeavor to break the bubble that isolates its students. Students should actively seek to engage with the town individually to uphold the college’s intended value of civic duty. A slice of Antonio’s pizza at 2 a.m. is all good and fun, but if it’s the only connection with the college’s neighbors, then it’s time to burst the bubble.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 13; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0)