Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Our parking "problem"

Sometimes students take you where you never wanted to go. I've been on a journey this semester where the students were the leaders, going places I never would have chosen on my own. And it could hardly have been more astounding and gratifying.

Each freshman discussion group this semester had the opportunity to undertake some sort of service project. This was an experiment on the part of the instructional team, and some of us had better ideas than others, it's fair to say, on what we wanted to do with this project. All I knew going in was that I wanted the project to arise from the intersection of the class members' concerns with their skills.

So I created a survey for the class member to take. I asked them what proficiencies they possessed (from photography to calligraphy to CPR); their major and minor; the topic of their Honors admissions essay (in which they were asked to write on an issue of public concern where they want to make a difference); the needs they perceive in the campus and local community; and what they would want to accomplish if they could mobilize 16 Honors students for just one purpose.

When I got the results, one particular response stood out like a sore thumb. Although I had students put their names on the first page of the survey so I could tell who had not completed it, I deliberately did not choose to connect names with responses, so I don't know whose answer this was. But it rankled at me. On the question about needs on campus and in Conway, among the high-minded concerns and issues I expect from this group of students -- poverty, environment, ignorance, apathy -- one student mentioned "Parking." And for the last question, the one about what you would do if you could mobilize the group to address one issue, this student wrote, "Convince the administration to build a parking deck."

I was annoyed. Somebody wasn't taking this whole thing seriously. Somebody was being facetious or just plain self-centered. Really, with all the ways that we could serve, the most important thing this student wanted to change was parking? I frowned. I fretted. I tried to turn to the other answers and let go of my frustration with this monkey wrench thrown by one troublemaker.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. This answer was not an outlier. It was, in fact, of a piece with the answers about environmental friendliness and getting involved in campus administrative decisions and landscaping and drainage and community. It was simply a specific instance of an issue that shares a large swatch of concerns and impacts with those other, mostly more abstract issues.

Parking. Everybody cares about it. Everybody complains about it. Everybody feels strongly about it. But how does that passion square with people's other commitments to sustainability and beauty and justice and stewardship? And how informed is everybody's opinion about parking? I know that I've heard hundreds of rumors and pronouncements about parking in my time here -- that the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve is the eventual site of a parking deck, that we can't build a parking deck because the soil isn't adequate for it, that there aren't enough parking spaces for everyone, that there are too many faculty parking spaces, and on and on. But what is the truth? Does anybody know?

I knew that other freshman groups had chosen some impressive projects, from improving Conway's community garden to raising funds for a Honduran orphanage. I worried briefly that if we tried to find out the truth about our parking problems and come up with a plan to solve them, our project would seem trivial next to the others. But I felt strongly that this project, if we could accomplish it, would conform to a value that I prize: It would be real. Not to say any of the others aren't just as real. The difference would be that we would be dealing with an issue that affects everyone in our community, and that generates strong feelings and energy. If we could make an impact -- change minds or change directions -- that would be something we would all witness and benefit from. We wouldn't be aiming for an impact outside our normal daily rounds, but within them. And we'd be accepting and claiming for ourselves responsibility for the problems we usually attribute (rightly or wrongly) to the uninformed decisions of others.

The results of this bold (and frankly scary) move, of accepting student leadership and wrestling with a literally concrete problem right under our feet, are now coming into being. There's more to tell, so for now, watch this space to see what we found out, what we want to do about it, and how you can get involved.

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