Thoughtful engagement the key to bridging college town divides

Trey Stewart, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on May 26, 2015

Higher education is now considered more essential to success than at any point in our nation’s history. Yet as more and more young people enter colleges and universities, they may find themselves in settings where they feel detached from their communities, or where tensions between long-term residents and students can lead to mutual distrust and negativity.

How can universities and communities in “college towns” work together to address the inevitable conflicts that emerge from students and long-term residents living side by side?

Over this past academic year, I was one of five University of Maine students who had the opportunity to conduct policy research on this question with Orono Town Planner Evan Richert and Town Manager Sophie Wilson. This year-long course with Professor Rob Glover fulfilled research requirements for the Political Science major, while also providing hands-on experience and invaluable lessons outside of the traditional classroom setting.

Our group’s research was motivated by recent concerns in the community about the increasing concentration of student rentals within neighborhoods that had traditionally been populated by single-family homes. At times, this has led to concerns about disruptive behavior, property upkeep, or the attractiveness of neighborhoods to potential homebuyers.

Throughout the year, we conducted survey research that yielded nearly 500 student and resident responses and conducted several interviews with both town and university officials.

Our full findings reveal many interesting insights about this issue, and we’ll highlight a few key conclusions here. The overarching conclusion here was that many challenges simply stem from gaps in communication.

For Orono residents having problems with student neighbors, knowing whom they might reach out to at the university was a problem. Unfortunately, the default solution in such instances was to contact the Orono Police Department. This puts greater strain on town resources where one need not exist. In fact, we found that university enforcement is often more effective than the police at quelling these behavioral issues. Though most students and residents are unaware, the University of Maine Student Conduct Code extends off-campus, and the threat of expulsion or university disciplinary sanction is often more effective than police warnings or fines.

We also found that the University of Maine could potentially be taking a much more engaged role in educating its soon-to-be off-campus students. Presently, resident assistants do not provide these students with basic information prior to their move off campus, though our research determined that a vast majority of on-campus freshmen anticipate their resident assistants (or RAs) will be helpful. This is one area where the university could work to resolve some of these issues before they start by implementing simple “first-time renter” educational programs for these students.

Finally, our research confirms that there exists a tangible social divide among students and residents in most Orono neighborhoods, something both sides view as problematic and lamentable. Addressing this issue would help alleviate much of the pressure put on the university and town throughout the year when fairly simple issues arise, as student renters and Orono residents would be able to handle them independently through face-to-face communication.

To help facilitate positive contact in a more systematic way, we proposed several ideas. They include hosting collaborative neighborhood social events at the beginning of the academic year, or door-hanger initiatives providing off-campus students with “good neighbor” guides and encouraging regular face-time with their neighbors.

Perhaps the most promising strategy, however, would be the implementation of a Neighborhood Ambassador program, like that adopted at the University of Montana and elsewhere. This program would provide neighborhoods with direct links to the university through a student-ambassador, whose job would be to promote positive experiences in areas with high concentrations of student rentals and provide residents with a direct outlet for intervention when issues arise.

As we have discovered throughout the year, engaged students who feel passionately about community issues can provide college towns like Orono with huge dividends — representing an opportunity rather than a challenge or problem. As other college towns try to beat back these same trends of apathy or distrust, we feel these steps could serve as an example of how communities and universities can partner to provide students and young citizens with important opportunities for engagement and growth.

Trey Stewart is a third-year student at the University of Maine who conducted research this year (along with Jacob Hatch, Cameron Marcotte, Jake Posik, and Adam Thibodeau) in UMaine Professor Rob Glover’s Practicum in Engaged Policy Studies. He was invited to contribute a guest OpEd for the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

Research Shows

About Research Shows

Education. Jobs. Health. Poverty. Crime. Immigration. Environment. Campaigns. Rights. What does research show? Avoiding jargon, Maine’s Scholars Strategy Network explores pressing issues and democratic life.