As my husband and I walked through our neighborhood on Friday evening, two young men stopped us to introduce themselves. They were seniors moving into their new apartment in the neighborhood and wanted to get to know people. In that 5-minute conversation on the sidewalk I learned about their hometowns and their majors, and they learned of our work and about our two college-student children. What I had also learned was that they were engaging and respectful. They are welcome additions to our neighborhood and I look forward to seeing them again.
Many things struck me about this interaction, but most strongly was the positivity of it. If every chance meeting between students and other residents were so healthy, there would be significantly fewer altercations and the Amherst Police Department could go back to regular shifts on Friday and Saturday nights. I realize we aren’t there yet, but it certainly makes for a grand vision. One thing we can all do to reach this vision, however, is be as welcoming to the new students coming into town in three weeks as these two young men were to us as their new neighbors.
The vast majority of college students in Amherst are solid, hardworking young people. The key point 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. For many college students in Amherst, this is their first foray away from home and thus an unknown and somewhat daunting mission. But if they are living, working and relaxing side-by-side with a broad demographic mix ranging from families to seniors, they may understand their role in the community better.
The Amherst Business Improvement District has made a point of welcoming students and their families in a variety of ways. When they are newly admitted freshmen, we greet them, along with their families, for the 10 nights of New Student Orientation. They ask a million questions about the town and life in it and we make them comfortable with the fact that Amherst is their new “home” town for the next four years. And that we want them to be happy here with us.
Once the bags are unpacked on Labor Day weekend, we welcome them into downtown for our annual Adventure Into Amherst event. This is basically a big open house for new students to come check out the businesses, get free swag and food, and have some fun! Over a thousand students attend and have the opportunity to meet Amherst police officers, town government officials and all our great business owners. It is the perfect opportunity to discover that they have a fabulous campus but that they also have a fabulous town that embraces them.
Through these, and many other interactions such as homecoming and the block party, the BID remains committed to making all students welcome in downtown. We are a town that should celebrate our students because they are the lifeblood of our economy. We can do this by living side-by-side and actively engaging them 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.
Ideally for us, some of them will remain in Amherst or come back to settle down with their families later in life. In the meantime, let’s welcome each new fall flock with safe and comfortable housing, meaningful employment opportunities and interesting activities and cultural attractions. And with good cheer and positivity. Just like the two young gentlemen who just moved in near me.
Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.