Students gathered in 41 Wyllys on Wednesday, Nov. 6 for an open forum about the relationship between the University and the greater Middletown community. Wesleyan Diversity Education Facilitators (WesDEFs) Keren Reichler ’16, Alexandra Ricks ’16, and Janika Oza ’15 facilitated the forum, which was informally titled “Us and Them.”
Oza did not identify any specific events as part of WesDEF’s motivation for organizing the forum, pointing instead to a more general need to open a conversation about the Wesleyan-Middletown relationship.
“During orientation we were coming up with possible topics to address this year, and this came up as something that was definitely worth discussing,” Oza said.
Reichler added that she, Ricks, and Oza each has a personal interest in the topic.
“This was important for us because [the three of us] all work, volunteer, or are otherwise engaged with the wider community in some way,” Reichler said.
The forum drew about 25 students, many of whom are also involved with community engagement initiatives on campus. To begin the meeting, facilitators asked attendees to ponder the roots of any animosity between students and Middletown residents. Director of the Center for Community Partnerships Catherine Lechowicz attributed the rift in part to a lack of understanding of the Office of Public Safety’s jurisdiction on campus.
“[There are] potentially unstated policies about how people, either Public Safety or others, have approached people on campus,” Lechowicz said. “Incidents don’t always involve town people; sometimes they’re student-on-student. They’re just part of society. It’s a difficult question, then, of ensuring that campus resources are available to everyone in the community while maintaining a safe campus.”
Another subject of discussion was the University’s campus climate; students generally agreed that there is room for improvement. A common point of concern was the attitude that many students hold toward Middletown and its residents.
“It seems to me more and more that there are barriers within the student body itself,” said Shira Engel ’14, who heads the Woodrow Wilson Tutoring Partnership.
Adin Vaewsorn ’15 agreed that the way many University students conceive of their relationships with the city around them could stand to improve.
“Students tend to primarily have service-based interactions with Middletown,” Vaewsorn said. “[Engaging with the community] tends to become less of a process and more one-sided.”
Abel Sandoval ’15 echoed Vaewsorn’s sentiments.
“Whether it’s from in the community or from outside, [University students] are viewed as being in an elite position,” Sandoval said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being put on a pedestal…but I would say a lot of Wesleyan students view themselves that way as well.”
Ari Ebstein ’16 speculated that the topography of the University and the surrounding community contributes to these perceptions.
“Since we’re up here on this hill, sometimes it’s sort of this attitude of, ‘We’re up here, and they’re down there,’” Ebstein said.
However, participants in the forum expressed hope for improved town-gown relations. Engel reflected on her own perception of Middletown over the course of her time at the University.
“Since my freshman year, Middletown, in my mind, has become so much larger,” Engel said. “I’ve realized that I was defining ‘city’ in such a limited, limiting way…. There’s definitely a lack of awareness. People who don’t necessarily work with populations outside of Wesleyan are exactly the people who need to be exposed to this kind of discussion.”
“We tend to forget…but there’s a whole other world out there, and there’s so much happening,” she said.
Ebstein offered up a simple but surprising tip for students.
“A year or two ago, [Wesleyan] did a survey where they asked Middletown residents, ‘What’s the number one thing Wesleyan students could do to improve their relationship with Middletown?’” he said. “You know what the answer was? Crosswalks. We need to use the crosswalks around campus.”