The Need for Campus Community

The Need for Campus Community

Written by Del Suggs, M.S.Ed. {CLT 2021 Fall Edition}

Many colleges have been lonely places over the last 18-months. When some schools switched to mostly (or entirely) virtual, campuses seemed like ghost towns. Faculty & staff worked remotely and students learned online- resulting in a lot of empty space. That’s why now, more than ever before, we need to strive for campus community. As students come back and buildings fill up again, this is a prime time to create that feeling of unity and common purpose. Studies have shown that a lack of community leads to social disintegration, or a break down in the traditional support systems. Campus community is a vital part of a vibrant school. While we often think of community as meaning our city, our town, or even our neighborhood, campus community is similar. It’s that common bond that holds us together. Members of a community tend to feel connected, and to look out for each other. They work together and separately to promote the common good.

“We Are Marshall.”

The same idea applies to campus community. It’s that feeling of togetherness, that sense that we’re “all in this together”. It sometimes results from tragedy, and you’ll certainly recognize the phrase “We Are Marshall.” That phrase came about following the plane crash which took the lives of so many athletes and coaches, and reflects their shared loss and reaffirmation. Schools with a strong sense of community seek to reinforce it, because it leads to powerful bonds.

Community building begins by breaking down barriers. We have dissimilar groups of people on campus- or they at least they think that they are dissimilar. Students tend to group with their peers. These peer-groups are often based on ethnicity, age, interest, declared major, or other self-identified groups. Breaking down barriers brings these groups together. And nothing breaks down barriers on campus like student activities.

The most popular organized campus activities all serve to unite various groups of students. Dances, concerts, comedians, interactive events and programs: all of these things bring students together and build campus community.

Connecting Faculty and Students Outside of Class

Reach out to faculty and staff, too. Barriers need to be  broken between students, but they also need to be broken between students and faculty and staff. Consider ways to get your faculty involved with students away from the classroom. Encourage faculty to serve as advisors to clubs and organizations. Have faculty serve students at informal meal functions like cookouts and midnight study breaks.

Bring faculty and students together for charitable events. Assemble teams for walk-a-thons, Relay for Life, Habitat for Humanity, blood drives, food drives, and any other service opportunity. These interactions help students to see faculty as more than just “talking heads” at the front of classrooms.

Your Campus Values and Symbols

If they don’t exist already, create a list of shared campus values. These should be the values that all members of your campus community (students, faculty, staff, alumni, and self-identified) share. I’m talking about values such as integrity, character, service, sacrifice, diversity, unity, and more. These values aren’t exclusive to your campus community. They are the values shared by your campus community.

Publicize and popularize your campus symbols. I don’t necessarily mean your mascot or team emblem. Nearly every school has a campus symbol. Look at your school seal or logo. Is there a distinctive building like the Bell Tower or some other symbol? My alma mater has three torches as its symbol, each one standing for a different ideal: strength, skill, and character. Identify your symbols, and use them to help your community identify with your campus.

Promote your school colors. Schools with athletic teams often wear the school colors on game days. Promote your school colors as a way to identify your community members. You might even declare a School Spirit Day (like you did in high school) where everyone wear school colors–even if you don’t have athletic teams.

Embrace Your Campus Traditions

Establish rituals and ceremonies on campus. Many schools have events like convocations used to share school traditions. At the fall convocation, all new students should learn about the campus history, traditions, and even learn the school alma mater and fight song. It creates an instant bonding with your new students and brings them together with your existing community.

Celebrate your campus traditions. Many schools have traditions that go back generations. Some of them, like pep rallies and bonfires, might be tied to athletic events. Other traditions might be seasonal, like your Fall Festival/Fall Frolics and Spring Fling events. Others might be related to a class year such as Senior Skip Day.

There are plenty of great campus traditions and they add to that sense of commonality and unity among the campus community. Here a few of my favorites: “Fox Day” at Rollins College (FL) has been traced back to 1956. A statue of the Rollins fox is placed on Tars Plaza by the college President on a day deemed “too pretty to have class.” The chapel bell is rung, a free pancake breakfast is served, and classes are canceled for the day. It’s a highly anticipated event every Spring.

Traditions don’t have to involve a day off from school. The University of The South is a beautiful campus in Sewanee, Tennessee. It’s said to be “close to Heaven” by many students and alumni. The legend is that angels watch over the students there. In fact, when students leave campus, they roll down the window and tap the roof of their car. A guardian angel will then accompany the passengers until they return. They tap the roof to release the angel back on campus. Even the parking decals feature a Sewanee Angel.

Create Some NEW Traditions

Campus traditions don’t have to be ancient. With a little insight and creativity, you can create new traditions at your school. Colorado College did just that in the early 1990s.

Classics Professor Owen Cramer bemoaned the fact that Colorado College didn’t really have many campus traditions. So, he hatched an idea to create one. There is a large bronze plaque of Gen. William Palmer and his faithful dog in the lobby of Palmer Hall that was installed during construction over 100 years ago. Dr. Cramer slipped in under the cover of darkness with a bottle of brass polish and buffed the dog’s nose to a bright shine. He then instructed all the campus tour guides and orientation leaders to tell visitors and new students about the campus “tradition” of rubbing the dog’s nose for luck on the night before an exam.

Within six months, everyone on campus had accepted this tradition. New students and staff believed it was ancient. Even today, the campus web page lists this as a 100-year-old tradition. A former Vice President at the college (who was there when it started) told me the truth of the matter. Be inspired to go forth and create your own new “ancient” campus tradition.

Provide public recognition for successful and distinguished alumni. The school alumni association may already be doing it, and it’s a great way to keep members aware and involved with your campus community.

Honor Outstanding Students, Faculty, and Alumni

You should also establish a means to recognize and honor faculty and students. Most schools have an annual Awards Banquet at the end of the year where faculty, staff, and students are honored for their work the previous year. How about celebrating a “Faculty Member of the Month” and “Student of the Month”? Present these honors on a regular basis to keep the concept fresh and up front.

Work to create projects with a lasting value to your campus. If you attend an older, established school, you likely see these projects all around you. Often there are benches or patios or walkways with a label such as “Gift of the Class of 1958.”

Organize students to contribute to such projects and to create programs that nurture them. It doesn’t always have to be an expensive building or renovation. It can be as simple as a flower garden. I’ve seen lovely butterfly gardens on campuses with a sign which read, “Maintained by the class of 2015”.

Scholarships, Too

Lastly, consider ways to create community and enhance the community by expanding it. One simple way is to establish scholarship programs.

Scholarships certainly help students by providing the funding they need for school. But scholarships also assist in expanding the campus community. Those that contribute to help fund a scholarship feel a bond to the campus. They obviously believe in the mission of the school and the ability of the school to produce graduates with the qualities they admire.

A strong sense of campus community brings students, faculty, staff, and locals together. It is a bonding that produces pride and honor. Community leads to a more successful campus, as those members work to better themselves, their fellow community members, and their school.

Maybe the Beach Boys said it best in one of their early hits: “So be true to your school now, Just like you would to your girl or guy. Be true to your school now, And let your colors fly. Be true to your school.” –Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Copyright by Del Suggs, M.S.Ed. 1-800-323-1976 All rights reserved.