In my last post I wrote the following line: “Let me just say, the ‘real world’ as a term is bogus. If college is a fake world then it’s our fault for creating it.” The line came out naturally, and I didn’t think about it much after typing it, although it kept grabbing my attention as I proof read the post. I took some time to reflect and ended up taking a walk and jotting down some notes.
I realized I hear those statements all the time from students: “When I enter the real world…” I struggle with the idea that somehow college is not the real world. That belief is counter to what college is about: exploration and adventure, trial and error, and embracing things that are different. Most universities do offer a comfy world within their campus by offering every service needed: food, shelter, medical care, counseling, activities, etc. Four-year institutions market themselves in nice neat packages, a get away of sorts for students. It’s the last hideaway before the scary real world takes over and worries like taxes, mortgages, and car payments creep in. Even though the majority of freshmen are 18 and considered adults, we provide most services for them, without students even having to ask. What are students losing by having everything at their fingertips?
There are very few things that traditional four-year institutions do not offer. There are competing thoughts on how this came about. It might be because the collective buying power of a large group affords the opportunity to offer discounted services, or universities wanted to attract students and ensure they had a comfortable stay. I will say for certain that it’s not due to student development theory. Student affairs grew from campus need, student development theories hadn’t even been dreamed up yet when the student affairs movement began. No matter how it came about, we ultimately ended up here: A mix between an all-inclusive resort and a home for the elderly (with less elderly… although that population is growing).
Beyond the fact that students have everything they would need at their disposal, the part that concerns me the most is the relative alienation of our students from the surrounding community. Students don’t to need to venture out into the community unless for small activities like going to get food or grocery shopping. The community within the campus is enough for most students. The problem then becomes students don’t engage their community because they don’t need to. Universities promote community engagement but it doesn’t go much further then community service and internships. My concern is institutions don’t hold these ideals valuable enough to urge our students to step beyond the walls and truly engage the diverse communities they reside in. Community engagement should go much deeper. Same for diversity, it shouldn’t mean just the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of those attending college. Our communities are built on diversity and should be embraced as a resource and learning tool. What stories are we cutting out by building walls between community and college. Are we afraid of having students leave campus?
There are programs across the country that urge student-community interaction. While doing benchmarking interviews for a project I came upon two welcome week programs that piqued my interest: American University’s Discover D.C. program and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s SLO Bound program. Both programs recognize the necessity of student familiarity with their surrounding communities, not as a passing experience, but as a resource and integral part in learning.
I hope institutions urge their students to embrace community for everything it offers. If not, we are missing an opportunity to show students how truly amazing our communities can be.
Steven Harowitz is a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, and serves as the Graduate Assistant for Carolina Productions.