Norton Wheaton

The College Bubble: Befriend or Break? Part Two.

Growing Up in Higher Education

Continued from last week’s column.

Note: written in 2021.

I am no stranger to collegiate life. I grew up bouncing around the civic engagement offices at Colby College where my mother worked. After school, I would do homework on campus and during those afternoons I spent an unusual amount of time with college students and became familiar with their concerns.

One day, I was stumped by my algebra homework, so badly that even Khan Academy couldn’t save me. A math major named Will happened to be in my mom’s office. I asked Will for help with my homework, and he seemed to have a genuine urge to assist me. He got comfortable in the chair, bringing out a pen and paper which indicated to me that he wasn’t going to just help me with one problem then leave. He seemed ready to go through the entire assignment, even if it took a while.

Will desperately wanted to help me, but after an hour I had gotten nowhere. He drew diagrams that I had never seen before, and spoke with long-running sentences using words that I didn’t even know could pertain to math. I tried my best to indulge in his teaching style, but it was too abstract. Despite his honest attempt, Will could not come down to my level, and it was at this moment that I questioned my current understanding of what it meant to be smart.

I didn’t doubt that Will understood the material. He truly was one of those rare math geniuses, but he simply could not put the material that he knew so well in feasible terms for a beginner. Standing in front of me was a future data engineer who couldn’t explain basic algebra to an 8th grader.

His heart was in the right place, but he couldn’t speak my language and I applaud Will for taking an hour out of his Tuesday to help a strange middle schooler with homework.

I felt oddly smart after this interaction, not in the Matt Damon Good Will Hunting way, but in that, I had something that Will did not. When I eventually learned the Algebra theory, I could explain it and I could curate different ways of explaining it to different people. I realized I somehow had something that a math genius did not, and therefore developed a multi-faceted understanding of liberal arts education at a young age.

It wasn’t a negative understanding, I just knew that there was a wall, a barrier that some people fall into, and that stepping onto the campus of Colby College was like stepping into a different world.

Before Will, I didn’t see how conflict could arise from the existence of this “world”. For a while, Colby was the place where I could escape the misery that is middle school and talk to cool older girls who turned me onto underground music and discussed worldly issues with me.

It wasn’t until my interaction with Will, that I actually understood the presence of this so-called “bubble” and why it was so controversial. Our communication barrier around the topic of math wasn’t just like talking to a wall, it was also somewhat chaotic. I could see how our miscommunication loop could be problematic in the context of a more serious issue.

Keep in mind though, that Will is just one example. A lot of the young women who hung out in the civic engagement offices at Colby who became mentors or friends to me were part of a movement called “Break the Bubble”, an effort to improve relationships between greater Waterville, Maine, and Colby College.

It may sound casual, but Colby students saying the word “bubble” and admitting it existed was a big deal at the time. Waterville, Maine, Colby’s residing town, has always been a blue-collar community, however, in the 90s and 2000s several mills in the area shut down, causing some economic instability. Waterville’s poverty rate is 20.2% and 72% of students in the school district receive free or reduced lunch. Colby, similar to many liberal arts colleges, attracts students from a socio-economic class starkly different from the majority of Waterville.

“The students who come here, it’s not like we are choosing to come to a town that has such a clear socio-economic divide, but when we get there it is our responsibility to acknowledge that is what’s happening.” She continued “Just by me having a higher education and having access to a higher education, I am more privileged, even if we [students and Waterville] came from the same socio-economic background.” said Stephanie Rivera, Colby College graduate ‘18.

Town and college open dialogues were held as part of the movement with students and faculty. The effort to recognize not just the class differences, but also the higher education disparity was considered in the same light as social-justice issues.

In recent years, however, Colby’s administration has taken this initiative to improve the appeal of their residing town with an aim of helping the Waterville community, a movement that has caused controversy among the town and the college. In February of 2020, the New York Times released an article titled “Colleges Invest So ‘What’s the Town Like?’ Gets an Upbeat Answer” Featuring Colby’s new initiative to “improve off-campus amenities by helping to revitalize downtowns.”

This plan includes off-campus student housing, a new hotel, and the revitalization of Waterville’s downtown arts scene, including a new movie theater and arts center implemented with the intent of improving civic engagement.

Michel Cady, vice president of marketing for Charlestowne Hotels, a firm that specializes in managing university hotels says for the New York Times, “The town needs to be as vibrant and culturally interesting as the campus.”

Not all students, however, agree with this approach,

“I think there were two big ideas. When the students heard ‘get more involved with Waterville’ we thought of it as revitalizing Waterville from their roots” she continued, “Of course, now we have seen how it’s played out and the students are not always happy with what’s happening- it is seen as a form of gentrification. We are putting in a hotel that they [residents] can’t afford to stay in… how are we helping them?” said Rivera

Rivera admits that the implementation of a downtown dorm allowed her to interact and listen to the people of Waterville, however, she finds the “Art’s” theme of the revitalization questionable, “There wasn’t a huge conversation with Waterville regarding what they needed and what Colby can provide but Waterville wasn’t in a position to say no, however, because any help is better than no help” she said.

Through my observations at Colby, I have found that when a college breaks the bubble, it can be highly beneficial, but the key term here is: approach matters. The line between inability and unwillingness to engage in the world outside of academia is thin from the outside of the bubble.

Many Colby students were ready to face the higher-education divide, but when the school took a hold of the issue, the language just didn’t translate. When people live in literal bubbles for so long, they often overlook communication barriers.

Like Colby, and many other liberal arts colleges, Wheaton has faced such barriers in the past. Some disputes go so far back in time that the technicalities are not remembered, but the feelings linger.