A pathway to engagement with St. Louis

Clark Randall | Contributing Writer

The Washington University bubble is a tired term that has been pushed back into the conversation recently with news in Ferguson and the construction of the Lofts of Washington University. Regarding the residential development of the Lofts, the school’s expansion into University City has incurred both positive and negative effects. We have created jobs, commerce and infrastructure that have aided the Delmar Loop’s sustained success as a hallmark of St. Louis.

The apparent disconnect is that the expansion of our college into University City has not been equally accompanied by a willingness to converse with this preexisting community. As a University that admittedly is struggling to portray the socioeconomic diversity of its city, the lack of understanding between students and locals can seem like an impossible gap to bridge.

I began to write this piece in defense of the student body on the grounds that Wash. U. throws freshman onto the South 40 as if they were the control group in a scientific experiment, having each and every demand met within a square mile. In the midst of tackling this narrative, however, I realized its lack of impact. As students, it is imperative that we first put ourselves on trial before looking to correct the faults in any institution.

In my time at Wash. U., I have seen programs pop up in response to campus and St. Louis issues whenever students have pressed for them. I have also noticed students expressing disappointment that this has become too much of a responsive spiel that needs to become more proactive. But it is time we recognize that, whatever the case may be, Wash. U. now has many programs in place—programs to progress race relations, diversity, inclusiveness and acceptance. The ball is in our court now, in many respects, to maintain these efforts not only through Wash. U., but also as citizens of our city, St. Louis—a city that we deeply impact whether or not we are aware of it.

For instance, how will we respond to what happened in Ferguson? The University and its students need to own our St. Louis residence and commit to first understanding and then aiding a city that needs us to step up. As professor Jonathan Fenderson has stated no fewer than 10 times in my two weeks of classes with him, “We need to make our world—our community—the classroom.”

That is why I believe the University as a whole— along with each and every student—would benefit from taking a minimum of one class in the first or second year of college that pertains specifically to St. Louis. My proposal is still rough and will without question take time to refine. I thought of it on the phone last week while talking to my sister, a Wash. U. alumna whom I aspire to emulate in her devotion to community engagement. I asked her at what point she felt her relationship with St. Louis changed. She told me about a class she took called Urban Books: Imag(en)ing St. Louis.

The course description states, “Each student will select and develop a theme related to the metropolitan landscape of St. Louis and how it is conceived and perceived through images.” Courses like this can allow students to gain credit while beginning to realize the possibilities that lie in front of them. The University should look to promote classes and involvement with St. Louis beginning with its underclassmen.

I perceive the strides Wash. U. has recently made as a call for further action by the student body. Although I’m suggesting that the administration require a St. Louis-related course, I understand that the premise holds no weight if students do not continue to illustrate a demand that extends past this proposal.

It is our responsibility not only to recognize that the conveniences Wash. U. surrounds us with are often paralyzing but to seek solutions that further mobilize our underclassmen. As a lifelong St. Louis resident, I feel it essential that we break away from inherent containment to engage with a city often misunderstood.

  • Frank Wheeler

    As you said, this is fundamentally a student problem, not an administration one. The idea of a compulsory class or seminar about St. Louis is a good one, though I’m sure many students would object to it. Most simply can’t be bothered to look beyond their immediate academic/social obligations and venture out into and learn about the city.

    “As a University that admittedly is struggling to portray the socioeconomic diversity of its city, the lack of understanding between students and locals can seem like an impossible gap to bridge.”

    For one, I have no idea what the first part of this means. “struggling to portray the socioeconomic diversity”? What? If you’re trying to say that WashU finds it hard to reconcile the fact that if you go 5 minutes from campus northeast you’ll be in a decaying, poverty-stricken area that looks nothing like the neat streets of Clayton, then you should just say that. If you’re trying to say that for WashU it’s convenient to ignore the very real problems of poverty and crime close to campus because it makes it look more attractive to applicants, then say that.

    And I know what you’re getting at, but the second part of that quote is kind of bullshit. There is no “lack of understanding between students and locals” among students who are neighbors with local people and who see or talk to them on a daily basis. We’re all just people living in the same place. There’s no “impossible gap to bridge”–forget the student/regular person distinction, we’re all just people living in the same place. Now there’s an argument to be made that most students self-segregate and live in dorms/enclaves shielded from the wider community, but that’s how it will always be. If you want to live near “real people” you can do it. It’s not hard or scary.