Huzzah! Huzzah! It’s summer time and I’m back in school!
That’s right, I am now a fully enrolled student at the University at Albany. Of course, everyone in the Capital Region knows the university. It’s that big, funny-looking complex on the outskirts of Albany, a concrete fortress surrounded by those four towers. Most local people know it not only as a good educational value offering a wide variety of programs but also as a cold and impersonal place with a sluggish bureaucracy, known more for protests and problems than friendly people or school spirit.
Is the reputation deserved? If so, can this be changed?
As the university is one of the largest, most affordable educational institutions in the region, this question might honestly be of regional importance. Could a friendlier, warmer, more hospitable state university add to quality of life in the region? Might such an institution produce an increased flow of ideas, goods and services from the university to the surrounding community and back again? These are not idle questions.
School spirit zero
Approximately 20 years ago, I attended the university. At the time, I found the place cold and depressing. The year our university was rated lowest in the nation in school spirit, we laughed. School spirit?! Bah humbug!
Since graduation I’ve taught English in Asia, done security work, ambulance work, newspaper work and authored a few small press books, among other things. A few years ago, tiring of the insecurity of the starving writer path, I entered a master’s degree program at Cornell University, with the hope of becoming a professor of Chinese history. Alas! Despite three years of studying Chinese language one hour a day in class, plus two hours of homework, plus other classes, I realized I would never be particularly proficient at the Chinese language. When my advisers began discussing seven more years of study and learning three more research languages for a Ph.D., I knew a new plan was required.
Thus I find myself back in school working on a second master’s degree, seeking teacher certification.
I miss Ithaca and I miss Cornell. And I think, despite the many strengths and advantages the University at Albany has to offer, it might benefit from implementing a few changes to produce a warmer academic environment.
First, the university is physically a cold place, marked by mammoth concrete structures. Few buildings on campus are warm and inviting. Unlike some universities, after four weeks on campus, I have yet to find a place where one can sit where it is socially acceptable, if not expected, that one will say hello to the strangers at the next table. Where there are picnic tables, they seem to be placed somewhere off the podium distant from one another, leaving one to feel you are the university.
When chairs are placed in public areas, they tend to line the walls, facing large empty spaces instead of facing other chairs. Instead of inviting those sitting to speak to those nearby, they instead force the occupant to watch others at a distance, often enforcing a feeling of loneliness.
The other evening I found myself wandering the campus accompanied by a visiting Chinese scholar of Shakespeare (whom I know from a non-university activity), hoping to sit and watch a DVD on a laptop computer. After 45 minutes we gave up. Might I suggest a few carefully placed clusters of picnic tables up on top of the podium?
The university forces people to physically be either in or out. To leave campus is literally a half-mile walk, at which point one will find oneself on the fringes of your standard suburban sprawl with little to see. By contrast, many colleges border an area specializing in goods and services for students, including clothing, books, coffee shops and cheap restaurants. Often these become tourist destinations. Might such a zone, something similar to Ithaca’s college-town neighborhood, make a good economic development project? If successful, would it add to the richness of the Capital Region, perhaps in some way resembling Albany’s Lark Street or Jay Street in Schenectady?
No idle issue
And it’s not just an idle issue. Schools bring educated people to an area. And school spirit pays in several ways. Among these are reduced vandalism and crime, increased alumni donations, increased ticket sales at sporting events as well as the retention of educated people wishing to remain in the area.
At Cornell, some spoke of “the Ithaca syndrome,” where Cornell graduates would take jobs as waiters or salesclerks so they could continue to live in this interesting college town. To an Albany university student, however, the very idea of an “Albany syndrome” where people postpone their career simply to remain in the Capital Region would produce cynical laughter. Should it? If so, perhaps the university and the region should discuss changes.
Peter Huston lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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