College towns often suffer from a lack of engagement between shorter term residents and longer term residents (students and “townies”). In my experience of State College, it’s often the case that the townies make that lack of engagement worse by demeaning students for their worst behavior, and marginalizing their role in the life of the community.
When I arrived in State College as a Penn State student in 2005, I heard how Elizabeth Goreham referred to many students as “miscreants” and “lowlifes”. She was a borough councilwoman then, and that rhetoric didn’t stop her from becoming what she is now: mayor. Since then, young people have been called by all sorts of other names by State College borough officials: drunks, wolves, rats, bugs, etc. A diverse and healthy community doesn’t speak this way, and whatever the conduct of some of the worst bad actors in a community might be (young or old), it’s never helpful to stereotype or slander entire constituencies—especially when State College residents actually are 70+ percent student.
We all want a healthy State College that’s welcoming and diverse. But if diversity in the community is to mean anything in a practical sense, it’s got to include diversity of age and experience. That’s why I’m fascinated to watch what my friend Kevin Horne has created with BugPAC, a political action committee working to elect a future-oriented mayor and diversity-appreciating borough council candidates:
BugPAC is born out of both frustration with the present but optimism for the future of State College as a place to live for students, young professionals and long-term residents who appreciate and love the unique energy that only college towns create. We aspire to build a Happier Valley for all residents.
It was State College Borough Councilwoman Theresa Lafer who notoriously referred to young people as the equivalent of “bugs” who flock to the lights downtown and create a nuisance simply by their presence. Her attitude typifies the divisive sort of rhetoric that older people in town should be smart and gregarious and welcoming enough to avoid if they want to enjoy healthy community life. While I don’t live in State College, I wanted to offer my support nonetheless, which is why I wrote to the Centre Daily Times with this sort letter to the editor:
Vision, energy, commitment
Penn State and the State College communities have been in my family’s blood for nearly 80 years. I grew up in awe of this special community, and the people and places that make Happy Valley distinctive.
It’s what led me to help create The Nittany Valley Society to share the spirit of this place with every fresh generation of students and townspeople. It’s why I wrote “Conserving Mount Nittany” to tell the story of our mountain’s conservation. And it’s why I visit town as often as possible, volunteer for the Penn State Alumni Association, and give proudly to Centre Foundation and other local causes.
What I’ve never loved about State College is the needless animosity and bitterness between students and townspeople that sometimes poisons the good feeling of the town. As we get older, it’s incumbent on us to cultivate friendships and forge relationships with young people, both students and newly settled young professionals. Young people deserve to be loved by those of us who are older and have more experience and context for the community they’ve come into and try earnestly to be a part of.
I’ve been watching the borough race with interest, and am putting all my love and support behind Michael Black for mayor, and Marina Cotarelo, Dan Murphy and Evan Myers for Borough Council. We need their vision, their energy and their commitment to building upon the successes of so many generations in State College to create a more inclusive and vibrant town.
Tom Shakely, Philadelphia
Every college town should probably have something like BugPAC to focus energy and attention on creating a healthier community life that’s built around neighborly solidarity across the age and experience spectrum.