I walked through a magical place. Old, decrepit houses loomed three stories above me. Twenty-somethings lounged on un-kept lawns, taking slow sips from flashy beer cans. Ratty, brown couches from the '70s never ceased traveling in and out of the houses at awkward angles. A sonic buffet of Bob Marley, Sublime and Cake drifted through the air, changing from song to song but never to other bands
The scene? Kingston, Ontario. I was visiting my sister and the house she shared while attending Queens University. It was my first real experience at a university and my first exposure to the majesty of a student ghetto.
Fast-forward a depressing number of years and I'm a jaded student at the perpetually 14 out of 15 ranked University of Calgary. It's a university desperate to prove its worth to the rest of the country, but is unable to realize it suffers from one specific problem no amount of would-be rocketship cum hallway spaces or corporate sponsors can cure: No one spends any time here.
The reason? Take a look at the area around the university. You'll find nothing but upper-middle class communities and big-box shopping centres. Visit practically any other major university in the country and you'll find it surrounded by slightly run-down places to live as well as trendy coffee shops, restaurants, stores and pubs. This is a student ghetto.
Student ghettos are, as the name implies, places students live, study, screw and spend their money. Having a student ghetto around a university breeds a sense of campus community--an utterly alien concept to most students here at the U of C. Once this community is established, people begin to actually give a shit about what happens at their school. The university ceases to be merely a place where students go to suffer, and becomes, in a sense, a home. Suddenly its residents start fighting for its improvement. Refusing to let their education become secondary, they begin protesting things, raising hell, in a word--caring.
It may seem strange to us at the U of C, but these things actually happen. While the evils of student apathy have been attacked endlessly in the past, it's arguable that the students here have no choice but to be apathetic. Except for the few rez rats and a handful of students who managed to find a home amongst the retirees and families in Brentwood, most U of C students live an awful long way from school. What chance does a university have of forming a community when its students leave as soon as their classes finish because they have to deal with an hour-long commute?
Unfortunately, there is no real solution. The only thing the U of C can do is sit around and wait through the achingly slow process of reverse-gentrification to transform its surrounding areas into student friendly places. Considering the U of C is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and most of the communities near it are nearly student free, the process may take another 40 years.
The U of C isn't going to become a respected university until it has a student body with an interest in it becoming so. Without a student ghetto near campus the likelihood of the U of C developing a significant student community is about as strong as someone thinking ICT looks appealing.
What should administration do, then? Get used to being ranked 14 out of 15, for starters.