Building an off-campus community

Colleges exist in larger communities. This is somewhat obvious—of course the campus is in some physical place with other people nearby somewhere, and of course there are all the many ways that the “real world” interacts with the school and the students. But this is actually a big deal of a statement. My freshman year I hardly interacted with anyone outside of my age group unless they were being paid to interact with me. What a strange reality that is—to be 100% around college-aged people, and then the faculty and staff who make the whole place run.

It’s not natural. And it’s limiting: there's a whole wide world out there.

Getting away from campus and into a great organization in Belfast.

Getting away from campus and into a great organization in Belfast.

Obviously access to the community will be easier in some places than others. For schools in college towns, you probably walk through neighborhoods every day, and see your local businesses flying the school colors and giving discounts to students. You’ve got community waiting on every side. For folks in smaller towns it can be harder—there's sometimes even be an us vs. them feeling between the college and the community, particularly when there’s an income divide between the two groups. But in most cases involvement just requires putting yourself out there and thinking beyond your peers in the classroom. It's a question of attitude.

It’s worth being involved in your broader community for the same reason it’s worthwhile wherever you live: these people are your neighbors, and have all kinds of interesting things to offer and that you can offer them. As you’re building a schedule and a life, think about any interests that might not be filled on campus. Do you like working with kids? With older people? Do you enjoy being part of a church group? Of environmental restoration volunteer associations? Book clubs? Knitting groups?

High schoolers generally engage with more than one peer group: they have their friends in school, the people in their neighborhood, their family, and their family friends. At least this was the case for me: I was surrounded by a community of people who had arrived in my life in various ways and filled various roles in my time and friendships. But when you leave for school you lose this context, and suddenly your school and neighborhood are one in the same. But there's opportunity in this transition: your peers are now “young adults” broadly. Not just students. And, more broadly, your peer group is just… whoever you want it to be.

You can knit/rock climb/play chess/socialize/volunteer/work on campus exclusively. You can probably find hiking groups, political organizations and campus religious associations (or anti-religious associations, whatever floats your boat) within a few minutes of your classes. But it’s worth thinking about a balance. I spent time volunteering through both campus-based and community-based organizations, and I had great experiences with both. I also joined a variety of organizations, working on different ideas in different ways. By establishing myself beyond campus, I met great people who helped me enormously and became good friends. I had experiences I never would have without those connections and those people and their networks.

College either marks the end of your student life or the start of adult life. Think of it as a shifting balance. Take advantage of the good in both. Join the local library, take up birdwatching. Be the student who shows up in a community group and does good work and offers a "young person's perspective." You'll probabyl find yourself to be extremely welcome. Think broadly.

Please leave a comment--what are you involved with outside of school? What's something you miss from your community back home? What is available that's been a surprise? Let me know!