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Come out, learn about Penn State-Middletown relations: Susannah Gal

Posted 2/7/18

What’s in it for Middletown to have Penn State Harrisburg here, and what’s in it for Penn State to have a campus in our area?

Those aren’t actually mutually exclusive answers. …

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Come out, learn about Penn State-Middletown relations: Susannah Gal

penn state harrisburg lion
penn state harrisburg lion
Posted

What’s in it for Middletown to have Penn State Harrisburg here, and what’s in it for Penn State to have a campus in our area?

Those aren’t actually mutually exclusive answers. There’s a lot the town (Middletown) and the gown (meaning the Penn State Harrisburg campus, in reference to the academic robes faculty and students usually wear for the commencement or graduation celebration) can gain from the success of one another. Sometimes the fact that the two, town and gown, can be partners in supporting each other may not be totally obvious.

Let me first describe a few of the other college/university towns I’ve lived in and some of the different flavors of this relationship that can come about. I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan home of the now infamous Michigan State University, and moved back to East Lansing with my husband several years later. In that town, the university was right across the street from some of the major shops and restaurants, making easy access for students into town and for town people to go onto campus. The town basically doubled in size when the approximately 40,000 students were there.

When we lived in Binghamton, New York, my husband and I worked at Binghamton University. In that case, the university had about 15,000 students and the town closer to 90,000, so the difference when students were in session wasn’t as strongly felt. That was also due to the actual location of the campus on a hillside far away from most of the town of Binghamton on a relatively busy four-lane parkway with a few shopping plazas along it. It certainly wasn’t as integrated into the surrounding community or as easily accessible as Penn State Harrisburg is to Middletown.

I remember several examples of strains in the town-gown relationships between Binghamton and Binghamton University. There were a lot of homes that were rented by large student groups near our home in a residential area of Binghamton. There were times when parking on the street was challenging because of that. At times, the students would have somewhat loud parties going on late into the night and residents would have to call to request the students quiet down or end their festivities. And one of the most visible events involving students in town was the “pub crawl” held usually the last day of final exams in May. That was when the students basically celebrated the end of the academic year or of their time at Binghamton University by walking between different bars in town to get drinks. Eventually this became so popular that they had to close the streets in town to car traffic. If one forgot when that event was happening and tried to get across the city at that time, forget it.

While these things may seem bad, rentals of large homes in an area where most families lived in the suburbs provides financial options for people to own property in town. The bars and restaurants did a brisk business during pub crawl so you couldn’t blame them for being pleased the campus was growing in popularity.

There were also things that Binghamton University did actively to cultivate the relationship between the town and the gown. They hosted a Spring Fling and a summer event with rides and fun activities that was free and open to the people in town. Events on campus were publicized and open to the public. They had a huge concert hall that in the summer opened onto a lawn for shows or performances that families could enjoy while having a picnic. There was a lovely art gallery that regularly hosted exhibits.

I’ve written before about some of the assets Penn State Harrisburg can be for Middletown. Since those articles appeared, I’ve learned of several other ways that campus students have impacted positively in the community. There is the wonderful example of the civil engineering students working with the borough on evaluating the stormwater drainage in town. There are groups of students and faculty working with the Communities That Care and another group with the Interfaith Housing Board to re-envision the thrift store space. At a recent “C.A.R.E Fair” on campus, several groups such as the Middletown Home, the Middletown Area Historical Society and Bright Horizons preschool were meeting students to recruit them as volunteers to enrich their programing and provide the students with real world experience.

So what can the town do for the campus and what can the campus do for the town?

In an effort to explore these questions, I am coordinating a three-session series on town-gown relationships at the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown. These sessions will be held from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m. Feb. 11, 18 and 25 in the Fellowship Hall of the church at the corner of Union and Water streets (290 N. Union St.). At the first session, I will talk about my experiences in different university towns and a recent survey of campus faculty and staff who live in Middletown providing their perspectives on the relationship between the town and the campus. On Feb. 18, members of the Middletown Borough Council and the Human Relations Commission of the borough will describe the opportunities they see in developing the relationship between the town and this campus of Penn State University. On Feb. 25, students of the Penn State Harrisburg campus will share their perspectives on the relationship and what they think would improve their interactions with town residents.

These sessions are open to the public. I look forward to sharing with you what I’ve gained so far from the good relationships between town and gown and learning from you what more we could do together. Send me ideas for how you think on this topic. Thanks!

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.