Fortifying local bonds

Thursday’s announcement of the new Center for Learning in Action and last weekend’s second annual Human Library solidify a growing commitment to community engagement at the College. Both the Center and the Human Library seek to break down barriers between the College and our surrounding communities. We often speak of the purple bubble, but few realize just how small this bubble actually is. For many Williams students, the edge of campus is as far as their college experience reaches. The College has the potential to do much more in its interaction with not only Williamstown, but also North Adams and the rest of Berkshire County. We at the Record applaud these programs and their powerful goals.

The second annual Human Library sought to create personal connections and break down cultural and social barriers within and beyond our community. The program is based around the idea that personal conversations in safe spaces serve to eliminate stereotypes and strengthen community relations. While many participants were from the College itself, the organization proactively gathered people and stories from beyond the campus, serving to create familiarity and bonds between members of the College and our neighbors. We commend the Human Library’s success in inspiring diverse and popular participation. Students and community members clearly desire meaningful interaction with one another and this event fills that need.

The College has been frequently criticized for its lack of involvement outside of campus, most notably during the flood of the Spruces after Hurricane Irene. Since the College abolished the Greek system, it lacks formal community service structures that exist on many other campuses. While many volunteer opportunities exist, participation is lacking without the explicit community service responsibilities that organizations like fraternities and sororities provide. Programs like the Human Library serve to build personal stakes in the area in which we live. The College has a great resource in its student body, which can be leveraged for campaigns beyond the annual Winter Blitz. We believe there may be opportunity for neighborhoods to create community service opportunities and focus similar to Greek systems. Additionally, we must also be conscious of areas beyond Williamstown. Much of the College’s staff commutes from North Adams, Pittsfield, Vermont and beyond, and there are opportunities for further student involvement, service and community building initiatives in these places as well.

While the Human Library creates opportunity for depth in community interaction, the Center for Learning in Action, under the direction of Coordinator of Experiential Education Paula Consolini, will integrate the Office of Experiential Education with the Center for Community Engagement, providing further breadth to our goals of community building. Experiential education is naturally tied to community engagement efforts as students expand their learning possibilities by working outside the classroom setting. As such, this program pushes students of the College and faculty directly into Berkshire schools, local government offices and businesses. This work will serve to strengthen College and local community relations, providing learning opportunities for students and student support and familiarity with the College for community members. Experiential education has broad appeal for students, whether they are interested in education at local schools, civics in government, sciences in local fieldwork or entrepreneurship in local businesses. As a result, the Center promises to bring breadth to the College’s interactions with Berkshire County.

The Office of Experiential Education currently oversees a number of varied learning programs, while the Center for Community Engagement provides funding for community service work. We at the Record hope that this unification of responsibilities will also involve articulating a shared vision for the included offices. The relocation under shared office space should help this restructuring go beyond a new name. Further, we hope that student groups will take advantage of this opportunity to power community service initiatives and their own ideas for experiential education opportunities. We also believe that current experiential education opportunities have room to expand beyond the catalog of Winter Study courses and extracurricular activities and further into regular semester classes. In this way, the new Center for Learning in Action should build upon and drive its current programming in a purposeful direction, while simultaneously fostering grassroots student projects and campaigns.

Events like the Human Library and the administration’s consolidation of the Center for Learning in Action are meeting institutional and student interest in furthering efforts for community engagement. The success of these programs is not only in their fulfillment of the needs of the College but also in the positive impact they have on our surrounding communities. We at the Record hope that the administration and the student body will continue to support these initiatives and foster the growth of further projects. Through community interaction, we at the College can build stronger ties to the Berkshires, supporting community building and enriching our own learning in the process.

  • Peter Kowalski

    Williams isn’t in the Berkshires. It’s in a valley with the Taconic Mountains to the west, the Greylock Range to the south (an eastern spur of the Taconics, and the Hoosac Range ( a southerly extension of the Green Mountains) to the immediate north and further east on the other side of North Adams. The Berkshires are in northwestern Connecticut, eastern New York and come into southern and central Berkshire County, but peter out around Pittsfield.