Students meet mayor’s challenge: become active citizens of Boston
By Jessica Ullian
Matt Jacobs knows where to go in Allston for kicks on a Friday night. For the past three years, he has bypassed the nightlife hot spots and headed straight to the West End House, where he coached a youth basketball team.
The 21-year-old advertising major started coaching during his first year at BU, after asking Joseph Walsh, director of community relations, about programs that would let him get involved in city life. Walsh referred him to the basketball league at Allston’s Jackson-Mann Community Center, and Jacobs — who had never coached before — quickly became immersed in the challenge of organizing a preteen team. The kids initially had trouble with the concept of teamwork and lost their first three games, but went on to win the league championship.
“I’ll probably always remember that group of kids,” Jacobs (COM’05) says. Now, when they see him around the neighborhood, they call him “Coach.”
Jacobs’ experience is likely what Mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01) had in mind when he wrote an open letter to Boston’s college students last month, greeting them enthusiastically and encouraging them to take an active role in city life.
“Remember that by attending school here, you are joining not only the community of your particular institution, but also the diverse community of Boston,” Menino wrote. “Respect and help maintain the quality of life for the people in your neighborhood. After all, it’s yours now too.”
The reputation of the city’s undergraduates has suffered this past year: in January, a Northeastern University student was killed in post–Super Bowl riots, prompting some harsh criticism of local collegians, and more recently, a proposed city ordinance requiring colleges to register the names and addresses of all off-campus students with the Boston Police Department sparked student protests.
But while town-gown tensions have always existed, Walsh says that interactions between students and residents have been increasingly positive in recent years. For its part, BU offers a variety of organized programs through the Community Service Center, where more than 1,000 students volunteer each year for programs such as after-school tutoring, food collection and distribution, and big-brother/big-sister pairings. Karla Hurtley (CAS’05), a chemistry major, found her niche in the center’s Wizards program, where BU students perform laboratory experiments with elementary and middle school students. “I’m a science major,” she says, “so it’s a natural link for me to be involved in teaching science.”
In addition, Walsh says that students regularly get involved in community events not affiliated with the Student Activities Office; more than 100 students ran in the Brian J. Honan charity race in September, he says, which benefits the scholarship funds of the Allston and Brighton Boards of Trade, and dozens of student-athletes accompany him to the public schools during the holiday season to read to nearly 500 second-graders.
Walsh says that “99 percent of the BU kids are great kids. They help me at the Boys & Girls Club, volunteer for the 5K race we just had, and come out and tutor at the schools. For the most part, I think that the school here is a big benefit for the community.”
The idea that college students could improve the lives of their residential neighbors may have seemed foreign a generation ago, but BU officials have been working with the city and the student body for nearly two decades to ensure that the relationship is constantly improving. Since 1986, the University has collaborated with the Boston Redevelopment Authority on three master plans — pertaining to enrollment projections, housing requirements, and planned academic and recreational facilities — that have been developed with community concerns in mind. In addition, the Student Activities Office is continually expanding its substance-free on-campus programming, and the Office of Government and Community Affairs works day and night to enforce University regulations.
The effect is clear: Daryl J. DeLuca, director of the Office of Judicial Affairs, says that his department has experienced a 30 percent decline in the number of students requiring adjudication for off-campus behavior over the past two years. “That’s really the good news for this office and this University,” he says.
And remarkably, the efforts to curb rowdy student behavior have found favor with students themselves.
“I think that the student body, as a whole, feels that the BU community does a good job of making sure things don’t get out of hand, without being too intense and too much on our backs,” says Jonathan Marker (CAS’07), the president of the Student Union. “They still give us enough space to live normal lives.”
Creating “enough space” has been a key component of improved community relations in the past few years. BU has added two major student residences since 2000, the Student Village Apartments at 10 Buick St., and “the HoJo” at 575 Commonwealth Ave., a former Howard Johnson’s hotel, for a total of 1,273 new beds. As a result, the number of undergraduate students living on campus increased from 70 percent in 1999 to 75 percent in 2003 — meaning that most of the undergraduates are living in supervised housing and have other undergraduates as neighbors.
In addition, on-campus activities are growing to include more late-night options, such as BU Central, which opened late last month. Located in the basement of the George Sherman Union, it offers music, movies, comedy performances, and the occasional baseball game. At the inaugural event, students gathered to watch a Red Sox–Yankees game, ate popcorn, and stayed off the streets until the game was over.
Some students, however, would rather be on the streets — or at least on the courts. Jacobs cannot coach this semester because his job requires him to work Friday nights. He’s disappointed not to be at the community center, coaching what he calls a great group of kids who “just need somebody who’s consistently there, putting a positive aspect on things.”
It’s an attitude that has become fairly common among BU students, Walsh says: a real love for their temporary hometown, and a desire to get involved and make improvements. As Menino says, it’s their neighborhood now too.
“They really love the community — they find it eclectic,” Walsh says. “I think Allston-Brighton has really become a college town. A metropolitan college town.”