The relationship between Wheaton College and the surrounding Norton community has been an issue of interest since the college was founded in 1834. Many Wheaton students may have the perception that they are easily identified as outsiders in this small town with a population of around 19,000 people.
The “Wheaton bubble” can certainly be a barrier between students and members of the surrounding community. However, the college has been working on changing the perceptions of each respective side, as well as fostering a more positive relationship between Wheaton and Norton. According to Kristen Turcotte, assistant to the president and member of the Class of 1999, “The perception of Wheaton students has definitely grown in the positive direction over the last three years with President Hanno’s term.”
Many students don’t realize that the college is connected to the Bristol County community in a number of ways. Wheaton employs over 281 residents from the Bristol County area, and students interact with Norton residents every day both on and off campus. Additionally, a number of groups on campus are seeking ways to create more opportunities for Wheaton students in Norton, ranging from internships to volunteer events.
President Hanno has also established the Wheaton Community Council, which is comprised of 40 members from the surrounding Bristol Council Community, including businesses, civic groups and local organizations. This group is seeking to establish new ways for the college to help the surrounding community, and vice versa.
“Norton is a small town, and they appreciate the small town activities,” said Turcotte. “Wheaton doesn’t just exist in a bubble. From feedback the college has received from the community, the people of Norton really appreciate events like last spring’s Community Pancake Breakfast, as well as the annual Halloween parade.”
Assistant Director of Community Engagement Cassandra Petola said, “When Wheaton students who volunteer in the Norton schools participate in the Norton Halloween Parade, parents and children will sometimes recognize them and wave excitedly, calling their names. The more students get out and get involved in the community, the more positively Norton residents feel about Wheaton and its students.”
Turcotte said that the community doesn’t view Wheaton as a separate entity, one completely divorced from the Norton community. Rather, they see Wheaton students as residents of the town. Last year alone, Wheaton students contributed $3 million to Norton’s businesses and local economy. Wheaton students shop at local businesses, work in nearby stores and eat at local restaurants. The town benefits from the Wheaton campus, and students also gain many learning opportunities by living in a small community.
Many students interact with the town and gain learning experience by filling positions at Elizabeth E. Amen Nursery School, or by interning or tutoring in the Norton Public Schools. Additionally, many students have access to local volunteer opportunities by working with the Chapel Basement Office.
The Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility (otherwise known as the Chapel Basement) is one of the offices on campus that closely monitors the relationship between Norton and Wheaton. Petola sees interactions between the two every day in her work. She said, “Historically, SSSR had always partnered with many groups and organizations around the town of Norton and beyond. We connect students to volunteer opportunities with various local organizations to work on issues around food security, environmental sustainability and education.”
One of these programs is the Wheaton Tutor Outreach program, which places students in organizations like Norton Public Schools and the Taunton Housing Authority as mentors, literacy assistants and tutors. Wheaton also conducts the Wheaton Cares Weekend of Service during 9/11, through which students volunteer to perform many tasks that improve town buildings.
Petola added, “It’s impossible to generalize how an entire community feels [about] another, smaller subset of the community, but overall, I’d say that Norton residents appreciate the students who participate in positive ways in the community.”
The question still remains as to how Wheaton students can continue to become involved in the community in which they live. According to Petola, “The best way to foster bonds is to continue to engage with local organizations as much as possible and show them that #WheatonMACares! The more positive interactions we can have, the more productive our working relationship with the town will be and the more our students will be prepared to have a lifelong commitment not just to the Norton community, but to their local communities wherever they find themselves in the world.”