The College and the Williamstown community; Is the relationship getting better or worse?

While most students are still sleeping, Meredith Fruchtman ’02 is brushing her teeth, going over her lesson plans for the day. She barely has time to gulp down her breakfast before she runs off to the local elementary school where she works as a teacher assistant.

Because of her recent immersion in the local community, Fruchtman observed how easy it is for students to ignore their surrounding environment. “Before you start working there, you have a tendency to forget the town exists and that there’s life beyond the College. Working at the elementary school, it kind of surprised me that there is a whole town and a whole life that’s completely independent of the College,” Fruchtman said. “The college community fosters this idea that Williamstown wouldn’t exist without the College.”

Despite the fact that many students volunteer in the local area, residents and students agree that interaction is limited between the college community and the community at large. Jean Bacon, a professor of sociology, observed that interaction between the two communities is usually limited to commercial interactions at local businesses.

Ben Katz ’00 said students use the surrounding area only to get what they need, disregarding the well-being of the community. He observed that students go to Wal-Mart or some other chain store when they need school or cleaning supplies because it is the easiest and cheapest option. “They wouldn’t really think about the local pharmacy or a local business,” Katz said.

Tim Menza, a board member of the Lehman Council, an organization that coordinates the majority of community service projects at Williams, said while many students volunteer in the community, most of this interaction is only surface-deep. He noted that a lot of interaction is based on individual students interacting with select members of the community. “I don’t know that as a whole, it’s recognized on the town’s part and even on the students’ part,” Menza said.

Of the students, faculty and area residents interviewed, many proposed different hypotheses for the low levels of interaction between college and community. Bacon explained that the school is relatively self-sufficient in terms of the opportunities it provides for students. She said that not enough structures exist to connect students and faculty to the local community: “There are some, for example, the Lehman Council, that have the kind of structured opportunities for students to meet community residents and other contacts but beyond that, there’s not a lot.”

Compounding this problem is that, since Williams is a residential college, most students are required to live on campus. According to Tom McEvoy, director of housing, the college places great emphasis on the learning that can take place from living with other students. McEvoy said, “The principle reason for being here is to live and learn from one another.”

Jennifer Sawaya ’02 suggests that this requirement isolates students from the surrounding area. She observed that most students seldom leave campus. Dan Elsea ’02, explained: “We’re a self-contained unit. We have our own problems, our own politics, our own issues to deal with.” Professor of English Christopher Pye agrees: “I think Williams is perceived as somewhat of an insular place, and to the extent that the institution is perceived that way, I think the students are also seen as being in their own world.”

Others point to differing demographics as the dividing factor. Patrick Andersen, a resident of Pittsfield and a senior at Williams, pointed out that, area residents and Williams students come from different social, and cultural backgrounds. He went on to say, “We all prefer to associate with people that are similar to ourselves.”

As far as socio-economic difference go, the median household income for students on financial aid (44 percent of students) is $65,000, while that of Berkshire County residents was $32,737 in 1993.

Williams students come from “a very particular socioeconomic place,” Sawaya said. “It’s kind of homogenized in many ways. If there are conflicts between the community and the students really meshing, it’s because of where the students come from and their level. I think we’re perceived as very pretentious and very well off, which we are.”

Some say students are just too busy to do much else. Andy Herr, a native of Williamstown and a sophomore at the College, believes that the lack of interaction stems from students not having enough time to get involved. Professor Pye agreed, saying that since Williams is such a demanding place, people often have trouble finding time to get as involved as they would like.

The lack of interaction between the college community and the local residents has led to some hostility, according to Robin Lenz, the owner of Robin’s Restaurant on Spring Street. “Apparently, the general feeling is that the college students look down on the townies…. I guess the college people used to be very patronizing towards them.”

Menza, a board member of the Lehman Council, believes this attitude seems to prevent the townspeople from mingling with the college community. He recalled watching a film sponsored by Williams at Images Cinema. Though also advertised as a town event open to the public, most people there were affiliated with the College, he said.

While most residents do not openly express their negative attitudes, some students have seen outright displays of hostility. Elsea recollected a tour he gave to prospective students during which high school kids yelled out, “Williams is pretentious. The students are snotty and we hate this place.”

The power of the school in the community is another issue that further divides the residents and the college. Lenz explained that since the College is such a prominent employer in the town, “the townspeople perceive that the College can do anything it wants.” Elsea said that Williams derives its power from being “the only thing” in Williamstown.

However, Lenz believes Williams is a good employer and referred to good health and retirement benefits as examples of its generosity. Lenz also said the school pays half the tuition when its employees’ children go to college. Lenz said, “They’re not like GE, the other big employer of this area, which poisoned the town and left. Williams isn’t doing that…but still there’s a lot of resentment towards the college.”

Other residents expressed ambivalent feelings about the College. Herr explained that while growing up in Williamstown, the lack of contact with the students prevented him from developing any attitude in particular. He said, “the town was busier when they were here and not as busy when they weren’t. I wouldn’t say I was indifferent, but I didn’t have a strong opinion of them just because there was such limited interaction.”

However, Pye thinks residents are slowly replacing their negative attitudes toward the students with more positive ones. “I think they are changing as students become more involved in the community. People who have had exposure to the students have been surprised and happy.” Others agree. Lisa Shannon, a teacher at Williamstown Elementary School, remarked that the students are making a positive impact in the local schools and that the residents greatly benefit from the lectures and debates the college brings to the town.

Menza added that there is a very positive feeling when the Lehman Council is doing a project. “Even when you just call, they’re really excited that the College is reaching out to these certain individuals or groups of people, so we’re always met with enthusiasm.”

Dave Rempell, the principal of Williamstown Elementary School, observed that student interaction with the community benefits everyone involved. He pointed to the help Williams has given the elementary school, ranging from money to volunteers, and remarked, “I think it’s a win-win situation.”

Pye concurred, saying that in many cases being involved in the community has a very direct relation to what students want to do when they leave Williams. He mentioned the number of students doing adjunct teaching at the elementary school and said that this experience could lead them to become educators. However, he added, “There are cases where it’s not necessarily an educational benefit…. Even though you can’t add it up in your educational experiences, it can certainly add to your sense of worth at having been at Williams.”

So how can students become more involved in the local community? The first step is for the students to keep abreast of local affairs by reading the Berkshire Eagle, North Adams Transcript and other local publications. Attending town functions and making an effort to talk with locals can also go a long way towards informing students about the community at large.

Professors can also try to integrate the community into the classroom. Since college staff hold the special distinction of being both members of the college community and the community at large, they can act as a bridge connecting the two. However, Bacon said faculty rarely step up and assume that position. “From my experience they don’t play a great role, generally, in facilitating a connection between students and the community. True, they are community members and many faculty are very active in the local community but not a lot of faculty bring that connection into the classroom or into their interactions with students.”

Bacon said manycolleges have a more interactive relationship with the neighboring area. She observed that some colleges have a culture that promotes interaction between their students and their environment by actively incorporating it into their teaching and their extracurricular activity. Bacon believes that by including contacts with the community into the curriculum, Williams can increase and improve the interaction with the community at large. McEvoy agrees. “I know people look at Williams students as being bright, energetic individuals who can contribute to a better life here in Williamstown.”

It would be well worth the effort, according to Fruchtman. She said, “I’ve learned so much about myself and what I want to do by working at the elementary school. Giving to the community is not a give-give relationship. You get a lot back.”