Reflecting on the Importance of Community at a University

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Do the people at a university define its climate or does the climate at a university define its people? Yes.

Last weekend I visited my alma mater, Ithaca College and enjoyed three days packed of visiting old friends and making new ones, plus incredible concerts by Ithacappella and the Ithaca College Chorus (plug: check out awesome new music from the amazing Nate Tao ’10). A lot has changed in the three years since I last called myself a student there, both in terms of who is there and even how the campus looks. Nonetheless, my joyous weekend was defined by how little had changed.

In terms of people I saw that I knew, it was as if no time had passed (similar to my reunion experience at New Year’s). Even though I was seeing many beloved friends and colleagues for the first time in three years, the rapport and camaraderie hadn’t missed a beat. While this speaks to the quality of these friendships, I think it also speaks to how Ithaca College has shaped who we are as student, staff, or faculty.

This was only reinforced by the new connections I made. Whether it was fellow alumni I was meeting for the first time or current students playing frisbee on the Campus Center quad, there was an assumed quality and respect inherent in these new connections. There was an openness—a social integrity—that can only be explained by the one similarity we shared: a connection to Ithaca College.

I’m not writing these thoughts just to brag about how much I love IC, but I think they speak to the way a university is a living entity itself. In student affairs, we spend a lot of time (and money) assessing campus climate and working to improve various social aspects, but ultimately, there is a synergistic identity that can’t always be concretely measured.

When I juxtapose Ithaca (a small private liberal arts school) with Iowa State University (a large public land-grant school), I see difference in how this university identity manifests. At Ithaca, there was always a concern that there were not enough traditions. Committees regular discussed a “core experience,” often with concern that alumni would not feel connected to any campus-wide experiences between Convocation and Commencement. Iowa State, on the other hand, has plenty of traditions, from mass campaniling at Homecoming to VEISHEA. The concern there seemed to be more about how to keep students participating in the greater culture between these big events.

I think the way these two universities are pulling in opposite directions reflects challenges of institution size and culture. While Ithaca is small enough that students can cloister in their respective schools, Iowa State is large enough and so spread out that the university struggles to maintain a coherent social identity.

What I think makes Ithaca unique is a consistent, albeit difficult to define, attitude among members of the community. Honestly, the spirit that members of the Ithaca community bring to the college seems to translate to an expectation for all new others. I don’t want this post to sound like an academic paper on campus environments any more than it already is, but as someone who has experienced the distinction, I think it is worthwhile to share my observations.

I am doubtful that I could approach a stranger at ISU with the same assumed rapport as I could at IC. This doesn’t mean one is a bad place and the other good, but it speaks to the experience people have from the moment they set foot on a campus to their last memory of it. This amorphous university identity affects recruitment, retention, and fundraising, but in so many ways, it isn’t measurable. It depends on a community to define over time and to reinforce at every opportunity.

There has been a running discussion on the Iowa State LinkedIn group started by an alum who wanted to get her daughter fired up about ISU. I was really disturbed that everyone just started shouting things to humor the premise, but no one seemed to care that the premise ought to be challenged. Only the future student herself can decide if Iowa State is the place she wants to be.

I knew Ithaca College was the place I wanted to be from the day I auditioned, but for no other reason than that a current student (who had no official capacity that day as a representative of the college), Greg, went out of his way to make me feel welcomed and comfortable there. No facility, tradition, or reputation can replicate that sense of inclusion. It is an aspect of the culture of a university that can only be experienced first-hand.

This past weekend was my first visit to IC in a full year, and my very first experience when I arrived back on campus was chatting with a prospective student. I passed on my love of the university in the same way that Greg passed his on to me. I couldn’t not; it’s just part of the experience of belonging to Ithaca College to make people feel welcome and connected.

How have you made your campus more inclusive lately? What have you done to help make your campus the kind of place that people want to come back to over and over again? What makes your university feel like “home” for students, staff, and faculty?

I trust Ithaca College will always be a place I call home and its community my family, no matter how much time passes nor how much the campus changes.

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