The Ivory Tower of the University can feel like a dungeon at times. It’s only when you notice that all of your friends are within five years of your age, professors are the only people outside of that bracket you’ve interacted with recently (and do office hours even count as social interaction?), and you don’t even remember how to start a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what a blue book is, that it becomes clear you’ve become fully socialized as a college student. We’re living in a microcosm, where tragedies include parties getting busted before 2 a.m., and stress exists on a schedule (starting promptly a few weeks before exams, and ending after the last grades have been viewed on CTools). This might be fun for now, but what happens when we start feeling socially claustrophobic, or when we graduate and try to reenter the “real world” and realize that in the course of the past four years it has become alien.
One of the nice things about the University is that it’s integrated with the Ann Arbor community. This makes it possible — easy even — to get involved. We have classes here such as Project Outreach (Psych 211) and Project Community (Soc 389), which place students in volunteer positions in schools, prisons, hospitals, community centers and more. Language programs also offer opportunities to connect with the “real world.” Through Proyecto Avance, Latino Mentoring Association, students are paired with adults and kids from Spanish-speaking backgrounds to work on English language skills and help with homework, respectively. These all can become lasting connections, and because of the relationships I developed in my Project Community class, after the semester ended I returned to volunteer in my placement location. And friends of mine have gotten to better know entire families of individuals they have worked with.
Besides coursework and volunteering, employment both on and off-campus connects students with the city. Students who do outreach for University programs have the opportunity to connect with alumni and prospective students through phone calls, tours and hosting events. For instance, Teaching and Inspiring Environmental Stewardship brings visiting groups to the Dana Building, incorporating tours of the award-winning sustainability center with other environmental education activities. Off-campus jobs can also connect students with people they wouldn’t otherwise come into contact with. Especially in smaller businesses with more of a regular clientele, students can get to know individuals outside of student and work groups.
Why are interactions like this important? Social theorists and professionals can tell you: Knowing people means getting ahead. Your volunteer coordinator might recommend you for a job or your client may drop information on off-campus opportunities. Learning the proper etiquette for conversing with different people is important. It would be humiliating to leave the University not knowing how to talk to professors, or professionals in general. Likewise, after attending an institution as diverse as the University, it should be expected that one would know how to interact with people from a wide range of social identities, not just one’s own. That sort of flexibility is crucial to professional success, as well as expanding the horizons of personal opportunities.
Sometimes the ivory tower analogy for college makes me think about Rapunzel, trapped in a tower with no escape besides her freakishly long hair. If I remember correctly, the story has another one of those not-very-politically-correct endings, in which she waits helplessly until she is rescued by a prince. I don’t really know how he fits into this whole metaphor, but my hunch is this: If in college I surround myself with only people like me, then I will build up a sort of helplessness that will separate me from accessing opportunities. And there is no hope of a social-capital-superman to rescue me by introducing me to everyone I’ll need to know post-grad.
Getting acquainted with people outside of your own group can provide an avenue for learning about life in general. It can also make post-college culture shock less dramatic. Between jobs, volunteering and just varying venues for hanging out, there are a plethora of places to meet people who don’t look like you, talk like you or share your lifestyle. It might not be comfortable at first, but going to the University without getting to know Ann Arbor is like getting a sandwich with only the lettuce — it serves its function, but it’s far from reaching its full potential in flavor and variety.
Anna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.