How will we live together?

By Ben Beese

Two years ago, Middlebury announced a community study titled “How Will We Live Together.” The study examined community building efforts at Middlebury, focusing particularly on the commons system and ResLife. The “How Will We Live Together” committee recommended dissolving the commons system, a recommendation that is only going into full effect this semester. With additional Covid-19 guidelines, this semester more than ever we should be asking ourselves: How will we live together?

The commons system was designed 22 years ago as a framework for intentionally creating community. In an ideal form, a commons would act like a college family: a place to find support and encouragement from peers, staff and faculty; it would be a source of pride and belonging for a student. 

Sabrina Templeton

In my experience, Atwater commons was particularly successful in building community. Many of the freshmen for whom I was an FYC, for example, are still close friends as juniors. In my past conversations with former Atwater Dean Scott Barnicle, I’ve understood that this closeness wasn’t unusual for Atwater students, perhaps due to the centrality of the Allen common room to the Atwater Freshman community. 

This echoes the How We Will Live Together Executive Summary, which states, “spaces for socializing, [including] informal ones such as residence hall lounges . . . are extremely limited and in some cases and buildings, nonexistent. Put simply, there needs to be adequate spaces available for communities to form.” In Allen, there is such a space. 

As an innovator at heart, I am thrilled by some of the improvements that “How We Live Together” suggested. Let’s create better common areas. Let’s allocate resources, including deans and faculty heads, more equitably across campus. Let’s improve our faculty-student connections. Let’s create communities that seniors and first years alike can hold dear.

All the same, I’ve been wearing my Atwater sweatshirt more in the last few weeks than I have in a long time. 

Is it silly to cling so hard to an arbitrary housing allocation named after a long-dead college president? Perhaps. But symbols of a well-built community become identical to a set of important memories and relationships. Atwater is my FebYC celebrating my entry to ResLife. It’s late night Ben & Jerry’s with my hallmates during my first year. It’s my three-person Quidditch team at the Commons Cup. It’s dinners at the commons house and long talks with my dean. It’s my fellow Atwater Febs and my former residents from when I was an FYC (whom I missed as much as anyone while I was abroad). Community provides a lasting sense of belonging, and Atwater was, for me, a true community.

With the loss of the commons, we’ve traded previously existing communities for the opportunity to ask: “How could we live together?” How can we build communities that we can be proud of? How can we connect students across ages, majors, student organizations and extracurricular interests? How can we connect students, faculty and staff outside of the classroom?

Covid-19 complicates these questions and our answers. Many of our community-building strategies — concerts, parties, hall activities — are more complicated this year, if they’re possible in the first place. At the same time, we’re depending on one another to stay healthy for the sake of our in-person classes and our physical health.

I’ll only note in passing the obvious: life on campus in times of Covid-19 is more difficult and more stressful than in years past. In the understatement of the year, the CDC’s website tells us that “The coronavirus disease . . . may be stressful for people.” CNN suggested that we look out for feelings of helplessness and a lack of interest in pleasurable activities as early warning signs of severe anxiety, but this year many pleasurable activities are cancelled and out of our control. If there were a time to have a strong community support system, this would be it.

This is simultaneously the year to recreate our community support system and to rely on that system more than any of us have before. It is a time that demands community solutions while those communities are being fundamentally recreated. Once again we must ask: How will we live together?

An important presumption I’m making is this: community ought to be built intentionally. There’s nothing about the end of the commons, or even Covid-19, that requires us to create community frameworks to replace (or improve upon) the commons. Many of us will be fine without intentional community; we have our friends, our clubs, our classes — in short, our communities — already formed for us. But for those who fall through the cracks, there will be a world of difference. I have no interest in my community being one in which a first year (or sophomore, junior or senior) can get lost in the crowd. When I ask how we will live together, I mean to ask how we will intentionally ensure that everyone has the opportunity to find community here if they look for it.

I don’t have a good answer to that question. Taking care of our mental health will be paramount; our ability to take care of one another in stressful times depends on having spare mental and emotional capacity. Reaching out to others, especially first years, is important—as is smiling more and bringing extra patience, care and love to everything we do. Every little thing we do in service of our community is a way of saying, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

This is no easy task, but it will make a difference. Do we want to remember our Covid-19 year as one characterized by ill will, paranoia, frustration and worry? Or will it be the year in which we took care of one another and created a new culture of community that lasts for the years to come?

 

Ben Beese is a member of the class of 2021.5.

Editor’s note: Editor in chief Bochu Ding ’21 was a member of the “How Will We Live Together” steering committee.