by Megan Mirabito
When people go off to college it is easy to get trapped in the “campus bubble.” Between classes, making new friends and adjusting to dorm life, the idea of getting involved in the surrounding community is often far from students’ minds. But getting involved in your college town has several benefits.
For one, it can help to make college feel like home. Whether it’s going out on the town, finding a favorite hangout spot or getting to know the locals, experiencing the town and finding the things you love about it will make it feel like home.
Getting involved in community events, organizations and politics is a great practice to start now. Not only will you start a habit of keeping up with civic responsibilities, but you will learn about all the different facets of a community and know how to be an active member of one once you settle down.
Finally, it can help you figure out what you want for your future. Whether that means deciding where you want to live or what you want to do, getting involved in the community can give you the learning experiences and new connections necessary for those decisions. Maybe you love the type of community your college is in, or maybe not. Maybe you meet some people, do some volunteer work or have a job that helps you figure out your career path.
So, using specific examples from SUNY New Paltz, here are some tips on engaging in your new town to make the most of your college experience.
Town Events and Recreation
Homesickness is the most common problem students face says Tara Sestanovich, coordinator of first-year programming and a former student here.
“The first six weeks are the most important for a new student going to any college or university. That’s kind of their transformative period of figuring out their routine… how to balance their personal life and their studies and being involved in clubs and organizations.”
The Center for Student Development at SUNY New Paltz aids students in their college transition process. With town tours during orientation and planned excursions to places like the Poughkeepsie Galleria, the office works to introduce students to their new community as well as the campus.
“Step outside your comfort zone and leave campus for a little bit,” says Sestanovich. “See what’s out there.”
Visit the Water Street Market, stop by the shops and restaurants on Main Street, and take in the beautiful views of the Catskill Mountains, Sestanovich suggests. And partake in community events like the Halloween Parade and Taste of New Paltz.
The best way to find out about these events and activities? “Word of mouth,” says Sestanovich. “Talk to other students, find out what they are doing in the town. They can share their first-hand experiences.”
The experts agree, volunteering is one of the best ways to get involved in a community. And for students at SUNY New Paltz the best way to start volunteering is to meet with Erica Wagner, the service learning coordinator at SUNY New Paltz. Wagner, who works in the Career Resource Center, can connect a student with any of 300 different volunteer opportunities in Ulster County.
“It’s a great networking opportunity.” Wagner says of volunteering. “You get to go out and meet people you never normally would. I met my husband while volunteering.”
While Erica Wagner can hook a student up with a specific organization, there are also several volunteer events that students can participate in. Alternative Spring Break, Make a Difference Day, Saturdays of Service, and New Paltz Clean Sweep are some of the biggest volunteer events in the area. Just this fall over 300 students participated in Make a Difference Day, according to Tara Sestanovich.
Students can also join volunteer and advocacy clubs, such as Circle K and Alpha Phi Omega.
“Whatever you are most passionate about, find the group of people who are also passionate about that thing,” advises Wagner. “From there, you can find a way utilize that passion and then go out and a make a difference with it.”
Though participating in local politics may be a low priority for most college students, it is a great way to practice democracy, learn how towns work, and make your voice heard, according to New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez.
“You’re going to live in a town or a village or a city for the rest of your life. You have to learn how to participate in democracy,” states Bettez.
That may mean attending town board meetings to voice your concerns or joining different organizations such as the Community Improvement Team or the Environmental Conservation Board.
Students also are able and encouraged to vote in local elections. You can register through the school or online.
“Try sticking around for the summer,” Bettez suggests. “Have a personal relationship with someone in the town, get advice from people outside of academia.”
“It’s great to interact and be treated as an adult,” Bettez remarks.