A recent column in The New York Times argues that the structure of a remote college campus is responsible for the division between the student body and wider society. The author argues that college campuses that are isolated from their surrounding communities are problematic, claiming that they shield students from reality, create a distorted sense of commitment to the issues these communities face, and are an echo chamber of ideas.
Still, there are so many positive things a campus can achieve; A system that allows students to develop life skills in a safe environment is beneficial to both the students and the wider community.
The campus experience offers benefits that the Times article didn’t take into account. The original reason for the location of some campuses, like Princeton’s, was that a secluded environment separated from family members, outside commitments, and a large, busy city environment allowed students to focus on their academics. While the initial rationale may not be entirely accurate, there are still many benefits that students can derive from living in a campus shared apartment.
College campuses do not have an “infantilizing” effect on the student body, but rather serve as a space where students can grow and learn without experiencing the lasting and often extreme consequences of “real world” failure. Although many elite institutions in the US and abroad have historically been geared towards providing a distraction-free space for children of the rich, that should no longer be the role of the campus. Rather, the goal of a campus should be to foster a welcoming community that promotes equality among peers, creates space to make mistakes and grow from them, and provides space for student voice. Overall, this will create a campus environment that allows students to focus on community service.
Although the concept of ‘campus’ results in some isolation from the surrounding community, it also offers students a variety of benefits that can lead to lasting change. One of the biggest changes for many people is the process of leaving home or family for the first time. Living alone is exciting and freeing, but also an incredibly stressful and challenging transition. Moving to a shared campus and living with others who are having the same experience is reassuring and a source of mutual support at a time of extreme change. It means knowing that you are not alone, that your challenges are similar to those down the hall, and that many people can empathize with you.
The campus also instills a sense of equality among students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. As the university evolves its aid policy, ensuring similar student accommodation means the campus experience can be for everyone. Just as all students have the unlimited meal plan for the first two years, uniform housing ensures fairer access to the necessary resources for a few years.
Learning takes place both inside and outside the classroom. A lot comes from mistakes. When students inevitably make mistakes and find themselves in compromising situations, there is a degree of increased security in knowing that most situations will be handled internally. Training provided by the Office for Sexual Harassment/Assault Counseling, Resources and Education (SHARE) or the Office for Diversity and Inclusion aims to prepare each student with the tools to deal with difficult situations related to inclusion and interpersonal relationships to master. In addition, many students have completed additional training, so disputes and problems can often be addressed by peers.
The beauty of living in a small town is that we have a voice in the community and have the power to make real change. The college campus certainly has its downsides too; As the Times article mentions, activism can certainly break away from real problems. But instead of trying to deconstruct that community, we’d be much better off moving the entire community into a more service-oriented structure. Even though students live primarily on campus, there needs to be a greater drive as a community to make a positive contribution. Changes could occur in the way the programs for Community Engaged Scholarship (ProCES) courses work, community actions are conducted, or the implementation of a service-related distribution requirement.
Once the students leave Princeton, they will go everywhere. But developing interpersonal skills, good habits and problem-solving methods in a low-stakes environment better prepares students for life outside of Princeton. The university and campus culture certainly needs to change in some ways: greater engagement with the off-campus community, more productive activism, and a healthier mindset should be the goal. Students must embrace the responsibility of caring for themselves and their peers, but many of these changes can be made from within.
Mohan Setty-Charity is a junior from Amherst, Mass., majoring in Economics. He can be reached at [email protected].