Is This Really a College Town?


The label “college town” can produce a variety of expectations. Having spent several years attending UNC Chapel Hill, my expectations of a college town derive from some specific observations. When I traveled to Ithaca, New York, at the end of September to participate in Cornell University’s South Asia Program Seminar, the plane trip heightened my expectations for a thriving college town, with a professor sitting beside me and another seated in front of me, and someone reading a journal article across the aisle. After landing, though, the trip from the airport to my hotel was a surprise. With the two-lane roads, fields, and a one-lane bridge over a river in a steep gorge, the trip did not include the lively environment that I expected. I encountered no sign of the student culture and businesses catering to them. My expectations and my initial observations did not match.

That evening, when Dr. Anne Blackburn (Director of Cornell’s South Asia Program and my gracious host) took me to dinner at a cozy Thai restaurant, I saw Cornell’s bustling campus and Ithaca’s downtown center. Those areas appeared to be a different world than what I saw between the airport and the hotel, only a few miles away. The next day walking around campus, engaging with faculty and graduate students, and perusing their large library collection of Asian Studies materials (Cornell hosts one of the National Resource Centers for the study of South Asia and other regions of Asia.) gave me yet another sense of Ithaca as a quintessential college town.

My initial response to the rural atmosphere driving into Ithaca curiously illustrates the disconnect between my construction of a “college town” and details of my own experiences in Chapel Hill. As a graduate student, I commuted on two-lane rural roads to campus, only hitting a larger road right before the main campus began. The observations that I have emphasized in terms of expectations for a college town are, like memory in general, very selective, constructing an idealized image that ignores those parts of experience that distract from that form.

Like my construction of a college town, any of our constructions of the world do not simply reflect detailed observations and descriptions of reality. We shape those descriptions and the ways that we construct and label the world according to a range of interests and assumptions, which reflect both individual concerns and the ways the broader society shapes us.