When I go to 51 Main, I feel as though I am close to a little piece of home (Brooklyn, New York) because I run into all types of people there. Not just students. Not just townspeople. But everyone imaginable. They are enjoying a shared interest, mingling, being together in the same place. Worlds collide there in a way that feels comfortable. But on campus, this sort of mingling does not occur as much as I would like, and I feel we are worse off for it.
Why should we care? I believe that Middlebury, considering its relative isolation geographically, is a place that people have intentionally come to—to live, work, and learn. Some of the most fascinating people have been drawn to Middlebury. As lifelong learners, we have a unique opportunity to meet others and learn from them in an organic way. Furthermore, people generally feel more “whole” when they are part of a larger community that extends across the boundaries of multiple identities.
Community Council is such a group—a melded association of students, faculty, and staff, and as co-chair I feel very fortunate to be part of it. This year, we have discussed the fact that faculty, staff, and students don’t connect more easily outside their usual spheres, and we have wondered what can be done to change that. Luke Carroll Brown ’14, Community Council co-chair, has described his own experience when he opened himself to making new connections: “Some of my closest friends at the College, individuals who have taught me far more than I’ve learned in most classrooms, are members of the staff.”
When I go to the Wilson Café, I see students and some faculty there, but very few staff. At Crossroad Café, I usually see staff and faculty, but many students still view it as “institutional” space. I am not surprised that I don’t see many faculty or staff members unwinding after work over a cup of coffee—and possibly a conversation with someone new. It seems that we all revolve in separate orbits, with just a few intersections. When faculty members aren’t teaching and working with students, they are busy with their scholarship and personal lives. Staff members have jobs to do during the day (or night), and then they go home to the other aspects of their lives. And students are busy with their studies and personal interests and are most likely to associate with fellow students.
Feeling busy is probably a major reason that people don’t spend time breaking social barriers. A colleague told me about an experience she had when her computer broke, and she had to stop everything to go to the Help Desk. She didn’t have time, she said, to spend an afternoon there. But afterwards, she was glad it happened.
While she waited in the Help Desk office as they recovered her lost data, she met students, a math professor, a writing instructor, and a grant writer who wandered in with one problem or another. They all sat around the table, commiserating and chatting. “I met for the first time someone I’d corresponded with for years by e-mail.” she said.
That’s what I’d like to see happen more regularly on campus—more organic connections, like those that occurred at the Help Desk and at 51 Main. The question is, how to get them to occur? Can we create spaces that encourage them? Can we all develop the mindset to find them?