The College Bubble: Befriend or Break?

Note: The following interviews and information was collected in the fall of 2021

Standing on a well-maintained patch of grass in a corner of campus, a curious first-year student, I found myself on Oct. 9, 2020, with approximately 70 Wheaton College students. On the other side of East Main Street, standing on the Town Common were about nine Norton residents holding Trump signs and American flags. The 2020 presidential campaign was in full swing.

The student’s counter-protest was described by the college newspaper, the Wheaton Wire, as an impromptu demonstration. Many students were holding makeshift cardboard signs relating to both opposition to Donald Trump and in support of social justice issues such as racial and gender inequality, and LGBTQ+ rights.

According to the Sun Chronicle, the Facebook page “Norton for Trump ‘’ had planned a rally in the Norton Common set for 10 a.m. It is unclear if the Trump protesters organized with the intent of stirring up the college. However, the Town Common, a typical place for town rallies, happens to be just a crosswalk away from Wheaton’s main campus.

A fish out of water at a new college, I found myself ignorant to the town of Norton and its relationship with Wheaton. Months later I couldn’t forget about this event. I wondered, “How did Wheaton and Norton get here?” and, more importantly, “What even is here?”

My first impression of Norton was that of a conventional small New England town: suburban, but formally rural, with a mix of young people that moved to Norton for the purpose of living in the greater Boston area, longtime residents, and families. I picked up that the public school system and community are two things important to many residents, and I knew that Wheaton was like many colleges, in its own bubble.

This first impression was relevant, but I still felt there was a deeper story within this seemingly simple town and gown relationship. Wheaton College and the southern Massachusetts town of 19,202 in which it resides have very few interactions, especially ones initiated by Norton residents.

The protest was lively and went on for a few hours, fizzling out and forgotten as the semester rolled on. However, on that day, Wheaton’s college bubble was put to the test.

Town and Gown: The Messy Marriage

Town and gown relationships are a lot like marriages. Even the smartest, the richest, the hardest working people often can find this kind of long-term relationship challenging. College town dynamics often have complex histories of broken boundaries, but when connections are made between the two during adverse times, the results can be rewarding.

many universities have a fraught history of failed, even parasitic, relationships with their local communities. Initiatives are often sporadic, disconnected or redundant in nature, supported by individual faculty, specific funding or fleeting leadership, without incentives for broad-based support or long-term institutional commitment.” Write Joshua J. Yates & Michaela Accardi In “Feild Guide For Urban University-Community Partnerships”.

The separation between the people and priorities of colleges and their residing towns, commonly known as the college bubble, has always existed, but there are almost always strings between the college and the town that keep the peace. After all, the town and gown inhabit the same physical space.

In the whirlwind of a presidential election and pandemic, the incoming classes of Wheaton students have been left in the dark when it comes to Norton and the concerns of the town. I have found myself in college during a strange time where civic relations have hit a weak point. Current students are growing up at a Wheaton with civic engagement largely put on pause by a pandemic, and the responsibility of student engagement itself put to question.

“There’s a lot of animosity in Norton between the locals and the Wheaton students. I feel like it’s based on a mutual distrust, and I am not sure whose responsibility it is to amend the negative perceptions we have of each other. I feel like both opinions hold some validity, but when I wonder about the real-life implications, I feel scared for POC students considering the current political climate and I think their safety should be a priority, especially for the administration.” says Wheaton sophomore Olivia Payne.

Even before the pandemic, there was animosity. The cycle of town and gown tensions can be redundant. Wheaton is old. The college has been established for almost a century and its status amongst Norton residents has swayed between inhabitant and parasite over the years.

This seemingly “old news” of students’ uncertain feelings towards their residing town intrigued me because where I grew up (Waterville Maine, home of Colby College), ignoring the town locals as a liberal arts student is a sign of blindness to the privileges that come along with the pursuit of higher education. Wheaton students seem to be interested in exploring the privileges of higher education, but I look at Wheaton’s current situation and see that such an approach wouldn’t work and could even be dangerous for students, especially if the administration has not been able to maintain their town relations.

Wheaton’s administration has pinched nerves in the past that to this day have not been forgotten. Incoming students however are understandably unaware of these past tensions.

Stay tuned for the next column.