Amherst needs college students as much as they need us

We were all a student at some point in our lives. Many of us were college students. We were young, idealistic and enthusiastic participants in a new life away from home. The broader world of a college campus was our classroom and our playground. Often both at once.

This dichotomy was to be embraced but could also become a difficult conflict within the community that we would call home for four years. Amherst has been facing its share of concerns over this very issue. One answer is better integration of the students into our community.

To quote Hillary Clinton, “it takes a village.” Let’s bring them under our collective wing and welcome them into their new “village.”

The vast majority of college students in Amherst are solid, hardworking young people. The key point here, however, is that they are young. They aren’t always thinking too clearly about the consequences of their actions. We, as a community, can provide a safe and nurturing environment outside of their campus to help them grow and mature into their adult years.

While student behavior has been at the forefront of the news in recent years, the town of Amherst and the University of Massachusetts and colleges have been taking positive steps toward improving student-community relationships. In just one example, the BID is pleased to be a member of the newly formed Student Town Advisory Committee, which includes student representatives from all three institutions.
This is an important integration of student government leaders into the heart of the community and its policies and processes.

For many college students in Amherst, this is a first foray away from home and thus an unknown and somewhat daunting mission. But if they are living, working and relaxing side-by-side a broad demographic mix ranging from families to seniors, they may understand their role in the community better.

Undergraduate students living downtown next door to graduate students, retired professionals and families with small children can only enhance our town core and provide the dynamism that we have been lacking. All will walk in the parks, go to the movies and share a meal or drink with friends. This is the 24/7 vitality that a college town can, and should, have. Students are Amherst residents like everyone else.

We’ve been a college town for more than a century and enjoy the many benefits of having three institutions within our boundaries. The flip side of this, some may say, is that we have those pesky students around all the time. I believe that’s a good thing. These students bring their brains and talent to internships and jobs across the community. And they grow into savvy, articulate men and women who start businesses and families of their own here in Amherst. If we invest in them, they will invest back in the community.

In downtown, there are any number of establishments that were founded by alumni and continue to thrive. There are always young, professional individuals who loved the area while in school and want to stay. Their ongoing engagement in, and commitment to, Amherst can only improve the economic scene and vitality for everyone.

We are a town that should celebrate our students. We can do this by living side-by-side and actively engaging on a daily basis; by developing mutual respect, through ordinary neighborly interactions and communication; and by treating students like the productive members of society that they are and will become.

Ideally for us, they will remain in Amherst or come back to settle down the road. In the meantime, let’s welcome each new fall flock with safe and comfortable housing, meaningful employment opportunities and intriguing activities and cultural attractions. Given the right environment, these young people can be the future business leaders of our town. Amherst needs college students just as much as they need us.

Sarah la Cour is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.