Odds without ends

From what I’ve seen, St. John’s is suffering an identity crisis – one that’s produced an apparent student apathy that leaves me baffled.

Nothing highlights this more than this Monday’s SGI Debate, held in the Little Theatre at 3:00 p.m. sharp. During the debate, I found myself less concerned with what the candidates were saying, and more concerned by the turnout – between 25 and 30 people attended the event. Meanwhile, there are thousands of students on campus on any given day.

Student apathy has struck me as a major problem at St. John’s during my four years here, and my interview last week with University President Rev. Donald Harrington helped me more clearly understand what’s caused this problem.

“During the whole transition from a commuter to a resident school, we slipped in student engagement,” he told me.

“There are a number of factors that could be at play,” he explained. “One of those factors is the question of whether or not we adequately address the great variety of interests and needs of our students.”
Rev. Harrington’s very honest admission that the school has slipped in engaging its students was interesting to hear and, most of all, got me thinking about the University’s resident/commuter
dichotomy.

The school has put itself in an odd and difficult position since the creation of the residence village: on the one hand, the dorms have created a new challenge for administrators, as they now have to create events that are catered towards students who are on campus 24 hours a day.

On the other hand, the vast majority of students are still commuters. With the recent and understandable surge in weekend events for residents, could the school be alienating its largest demographic?

I’ve heard complaints from resident students that there’s not enough to do at school, that campus is dead on weekends. And perhaps these claims are justified. But I don’t think the school is at fault for this; rather, I feel that it’s hard to establish a vibrant residence life with a minority of the student body living on campus.

Look at Columbia or NYU, for example. Those are universities that are largely resident undergraduate schools. They both have many more thousands of students living on campus than St. John’s; the sheer volume of people involved in their campus life means there are guaranteed to be more parties to attend, more student-run events taking place, and more organizations to participate in on weekends.

SJU administrators have created various events to try and keep their residents engaged, with many more weekend and night events. These activities, though, are not nearly as accessible for commuters and could leave them feeling neglected.

In fairness, there are some events catered entirely towards commuters. For example, this week kicked off the University’s annual “Commuter Appreciation Week.” But the very concept of that leaves me a bit perplexed; if the majority of students are commuters, shouldn’t they be the ones appreciated year-round anyway?

So, in a nutshell, St. John’s is facing an identity crisis: there are not enough resident students to create as vibrant a residence life as the likes of Columbia, so the University has been creating countless events to help engage those students. But they may have alienated the majority of their students – the commuters – in the process. The end result is a student body comprised of more than a few apathetic residents and commuters.

Rev. Harrington seemed to share a similar concern with me during my interview with him.

“Right now, my fear is the commuter students getting lost,” he told me. “In my meetings with student government, in the beginning they were all commuter students.

And now they are almost all, if not entirely, resident students. So I want to watch that to make sure the commuter students still feel heard.”

I applaud Rev. Harrington and other administrators’ willingness to acknowledge the apparent lack of student engagement on campus. But the question remains: how can this problem be fixed?

The new University Center/Academic Center seems like a potential remedy.

“That’s a major response on our part to what a residence campus requires,” Rev. Harrington said. And, as he later explained, “. . . we also want to create a place for commuter and resident students to come together. And I would presume that many of the resident students would use it more than commuter students.”

Indeed, the new UC/AC seems like it’s precisely the thing to help resident students feel more engaged and have a definite place to congregate on campus.

It’s important, though, for the University to keep in mind that the majority of students – the commuters – need to feel included.

Let’s hope, as construction on the new building progresses, the University makes sure it keep its commuters in mind.
Only then can it potentially engage them well enough to fix the consistent apathy problem I’ve seen on campus for the last four years.

St. John’s is struggling between two identities: a resident school and a commuter one. How it handles its still large commuter population will likely determine whether that identity crisis will be resolved.