May 12, 2017 | Posted in ASH Online
By Lobke van Meijel
Living university life on a beautiful campus made for some of the most influential reasons why I still call my time in Chapel Hill (NC) the best time of my life so far. Simultaneously, it was one of the subtler ways through which my exchange became such a success. Today I want to discuss campus life on American universities a bit more. Why is it so attractive, and are there potential threats to campus life still?
Let’s go back to August 12, 2015. I was sitting in a bus departing Durham, a town I would soon know as the hometown of the worst university in the States: Dook. As I got off the bus in a little place called Chapel Hill, a large first park that was part of the college campus was immediately in sight. I worked my way through the amazingly green place, walked past UNC’s most controversial statue of a confederate soldier and made my way to the Old Well. Things quickly fell into place. This would soon become an awesome home base for the next four months.
Every campus in the USA is different, but most campuses have many things in common. These common grounds can often bring comfort to the thousands of students living on the same lands, and sometimes even in strange ways.
For one, campus life quite literally brings everything closer and within an arm’s reach. In Groningen I was living and studying in the city. In Chapel Hill, all non-student residents were living in a town catered almost completely to its university. From my residence hall I could walk to all my classes in under ten minutes. I could go to the dining hall in under five minutes, where I had enough options to eat healthy or like a carb-depraved cavewoman. Going to sports games, a Christian studying place, the swimming pool, the library, the bars and supermarkets… Everything could be accessed within 20 minutes of walking.
In addition to having all these services and accommodations close by, we also should not forget the people using these services and accommodations. In Chapel Hill, I sprinted to my classes along with hundreds of other students. The social center of campus, also known as the Pit, was crowded everyday as students organized cookouts, dances, bible study sessions, and came together for activist purposes. Over 200 student organizations gathered together on this campus, and among the thousands of people there was always somebody to do something fun with.
I was never alone. I am convinced that living together and sharing similar experiences in terms of undertaking the same activities, going to the same bars and eating the same foods (even if it is instant ramen) can bring students together as a community: they can identify with each other at least on these basic levels. Campus life probably is a big part of school spirit—after all, if the sports games that America’s school spirit is known for weren’t so close by, would they still be so popular? Even when finals were coming up, we were all sitting in the library halls until 2 AM. It might not make the learning any more fun, but suffering collectively has a certain charm and wit to it which makes the all-nighters bearable.
A third reason why campus life felt like a breeze was the way in which money was taken care of right from the beginning. To be fair, this can be a pro or a huge con: if you don’t have heaps of cash available at once, it’s difficult to pay all the bills upfront. However, if you can make a loan or borrow money from your folks, it’s a deafening blow at first but a breeze from then on. I already purchased my right to make use of the campus pool, gyms and all other kinds of accommodations well before the semester started. I had a meal plan and a “flex card” which allowed me to get food inside and outside the dining halls without having to hand over a single dollar. As long as I was on campus, I never had to worry about spending too much money—everything was already taken care of from the start.
These things became some of the prime reasons why I personally felt right at home on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. But I recognize that campus life may be much more dark than the picture I painted here. When somebody’s talking about campus life, we must also be aware of some of its downsides. For instance, in the Netherlands we talk about moving away from your folks in terms of finally building some independence and gaining valuable ‘adulting’ skills. In the United States many students move away thousands of miles from their parents, but they end up in a bubble—protected by their peers and the easy access to everything they need. The easy access to everything makes it even easier to avoid learning useful skills like cooking a decent meal. It may cause an atmosphere in which students—who come to campus to learn—end up only meeting people with similar outlooks on life.
In addition, it’s well known that American campuses are not always safe places for students around the world. For instance, campus rape situations mark even the best schools—also at UNC. Campus shootings still happen—also at UNC. And statistically, USA university campuses make up some of the worst spots in the Western world if we talk about mental health—also at UNC. Of course, these dangerous, sometimes even potentially lethal situations are not caused by campus life alone, but campus life can be a facilitating factor. Such problems need to be addressed whenever one is critically assessing the advantages and disadvantages of campus life.
For me personally, campus life at UNC was great. I still reminisce about my nights walking back from the Daily Tar Heel to my residence hall after a busy day, just enjoying the pretty trees and the squirrels under the dimmed lights and watching other students playing football or chatting together on their quads. UNC offered me so much, and I made the most out of every minute I was there. Somehow, though, among all of the thrilling activities and fantastic trips to wonderful locations, these nights walking back to my dorm room and amazing roommate became some of my most treasured memories. No matter how quiet and uneventful they seemed at first.