An imaginary community

October 20, 2011

At the small, private high school in Pennsylvania that I attended, there was no escaping community. One of about 500 students, I knew practically everyone on campus—students, teachers, and even faculty’s children. Last week, the school’s Alumni Association held a reception for all D.C.-based alums to honor the retirement of the Mr. and Mrs. Dougherty, the nearly-20-year incumbent Headmaster and Headmistress of the Hill School.

Not one to miss out on a nostalgia-fest, I enlisted the company of my high school roommate (who also goes to school in D.C.) and registered for the event. I was apprehensive about entertaining a room full of complete strangers, but within five seconds of our arrival, we were greeted into the welcome arms of what seemed almost like a ridiculously extended family.

When I was a senior at Hill, I felt inextricably connected to the place and to everyone who was a part of it. But when I arrived at the promised land of higher-level academia, I couldn’t help but be let down. Of course it’s natural to feel lost going from being a big fish in a small pond to a lowly first-year guppy. But as a freshman at Georgetown, once the NSO Cheerleaders strip off their neon t-shirts and cease all their “HOYA SAXA”-ing, it is incredibly easy to disappear into gateway class oblivion.

Unless they enter as part of the world of varsity athletics, Georgetown freshmen have a very limited scope of the University’s community, but even if one could escape the confines of her Village C cell, I don’t think that she’d find any other community to tap into. As an upperclassman, I’ve found my own circle growing smaller and smaller, self-selecting as I go further into my major and withdraw from University-sponsored events in favor of being with my own friends or branching out into the city. For that matter, even my friend groups lack any real cohesion: my freshman-floor friends don’t know my Voice friends who don’t know my radio friends, and although I know them all, I sometimes feel like if introduced they wouldn’t get along anyway.

Beyond friend groups, Georgetown is undeniably lacking in a wider community presence. Although I have professors who I’ve liked and now have major advisers, it is very difficult to maintain long-term relationships with teachers or administrators because we really have no common ground outside the classroom. In high school I interacted with the same professors and team coaches year after year, but since coming to Georgetown I have found that unless I make a concerted effort to take a professor’s class more than once or send excessive emails just to “keep in touch,” I lose contact with all adult figures once a semester is over.

With more than 7,000 undergraduates, Georgetown qualifies as a mid-sized college, and the compact campus should make that number feel even smaller. But without a central social hub for students to interact in, we don’t really have a sense of community here. And we need more than just additional student space. The school lacks any kind of built-in infrastructure that would foster a tight-knit bond among students across classes and majors.

At most schools, community is established and maintained through Greek life or house systems. Princeton has its Eating Clubs, Gettysburg has its thriving Greek system, even Middlebury has its fairly recently-adopted Social Houses. What does Georgetown have? I’m not saying Georgetown should run out and try to emulate Animal House, but it is clear that any large institution needs this kind of establishment in order to avoid the kind of disconnect that we are currently facing.

And this problem is not personal or passing. While there are of course other factors, I feel like the lack of loyalty to a personal community is largely responsible for the lack of alumni participation in supporting the school financially. Georgetown’s endowment of $1 billion—one of the lowest among comparable institutions (especially compared to Harvard’s $32 billion)—seems to reflect that undergraduates who feel disconnected while at school, don’t graduate and suddenly feel nostalgic enough to donate a brand new field house (Someone? Please?).

At the Hill Alumni Reception, as I looked around the room at all the welcoming, knowing faces of men and women who had been where I had and with whom I felt a kind of kinship regardless of where our post-graduate lives had taken us, I realized how much I missed the sense of belonging that a true community can provide. I think that Georgetown has many things to offer, but a real sense of inclusion is, unfortunately, not one of them.


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