By Tanya King
In 2013, Western Michigan University released the results of its Campus Climate Study, a survey administered to students and faculty to determine how they felt about certain aspects of attending the university. One of the findings showed that students were dissatisfied with the safety of Kalamazoo and feared going into certain parts of the city, particularly downtown. Many said they are afraid of people from impoverished areas who spill into the areas that the students might visit. News and stories of violence at the hub of public transportation for the city, the Kalamazoo Transit bus station, keep students from taking the bus downtown.
The fear is understandable; any city with a neighborhood that is unofficially named “the student ghetto” doesn’t invoke images of a safe place to be. On the American School Search website, WMU earned a “D” in safety and was labeled a very dangerous place to live based on crime date provided about the campus and the surrounding areas.
But staying away from a whole section of the city because of fear limits the college experience and keeps students from getting to know the city in which they live. Attending college is about more than learning about your field. It’s about learning new things, being exposed to new people and gaining new experiences. Denise Negrea, a community engagement specialist from Downtown Kalamazoo, Inc., which facilitates student participation in events downtown, gives good advice when she encourages students to “Just go downtown.”
When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to graduate and go to college. I never even thought about staying in Kalamazoo; the school I was going to attend had to be as far away as possible and in a big city. I was tired of what I already knew like the back of my hand. I wanted to learn about everything, the good and the bad.
I decided to go to Howard University in Washington, DC when I graduated high school in 1999. At the time, our nation’s capitol was ranked as having the highest crime rate in the country. During a tour of the school before I started to attend, the campus didn’t seem to be in the best part of town. While it was close to downtown, the bustling part with the skyscrapers and tourist attractions, it looked a lot different than that area. The nice buildings seemed to give way to Section 8 housing and people hanging out on the corners within a matter of a few blocks.
Thanks to making friends with other students who were locals of DC, I got to know which parts of the city were the places to stay away from and which parts weren’t. My friend and fellow theater major Osita was born and raised there and acted as a tour guide for me. I discovered the different cultures of the neighborhoods and I stayed safe while doing it.
Students have so much to learn when leaving home to go to college: How to get around campus, how to manage their time, how to be a disciplined student. Part of the experience is also learning about living in a new place, away from the coddling of campus. All it takes is some exploring with someone who knows the area to keep from limiting the college experience to campus.