By Allison Nanni
Member institutions of the Indiana University Colleagues Consortium of Higher Education are operating in full gear after welcoming the throngs of college students who returned to the region after months of summer vacation. The multiple campus offices of the registrar, financial aid and housing at Bethel College, Holy Cross College, Indiana University South Bend, Indiana University School of Medicine, Purdue College of Technology, University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College are all imperative to those who will call South Bend home for the next four years.
As area students have settled in to the numerous universities and colleges in the immediate area, the swell is also felt off campus and on the street. How does the local community react to the annual influx of an estimated 28,000 young people now walking, running, biking, driving, eating and purchasing goods around the city?
Is the exuberance infectious when a group of students is waiting to be seated at a restaurant? Or are residents a bit jaded? Do they mainly notice the longer lines and annual uptick in traffic and noise?
Aaron Perri, director of Downtown South Bend, says it’s the first option. Perri describes the influx as “a new wave of energy.” Perri explains, “Our population increases by 20 percent when students are here. Whether you are talking about the sale of durable goods, entertainment and concert venues or civic involvement, the youthful addition certainly generates some excitement.”
A steady stream of students and parents filed past the office of Patricia Adams, director of community engagement at Holy Cross College. “Since 50 percent of our students come from outside the local community, the students and parents moving in ask for referrals to local restaurants and other stores to supply their relocation needs,” says Adams. “It’s a good boost for the economy around this area.”
Kenneth W. Baierl Jr., director of communications and marketing at Indiana University South Bend, agrees. “Nearly 75 percent of students at IU South Bend are full-time, so they stay on campus through the day and into the night. They do business in the area, buying gas, food or other items from nearby merchants. In particular, the Martin’s Super Market at 314 N. Ironwood Drive in Mishawaka serves the nearly 400 students who live in River Crossing student housing across the street who need groceries to cook meals in their suites.”
Another sector impacted positively by students is the nonprofit community. All of the universities commented that their students volunteer or do fieldwork in the area. A particularly dense population of nonprofit organizations in the South Bend area absorbs students from numerous institutions.
Perri says, “We depend on student interns for growth and projects. Just today I did four new intern orientations for University of Notre Dame and Bethel College students. Our job is to give them a good experience in the workplace and to show them what South Bend is all about. It gets them more involved.”
Jessica Brookshire, associate director for public affairs at the University of Notre Dame, says the university’s Robinson Community Learning Center, which served 2,300 residents in South Bend last year, counts on college student volunteers for about 75 percent of its volunteer population. Saint Mary’s College places its education, nursing and social work students into supervised school, government and health care positions as part of their required fieldwork.
New Bethel student and faculty experience the importance of good neighbors from the very start of the school year. Bethel College’s new student orientation for incoming students and faculty includes one day supporting the Mishawaka Parks Department by cleaning and doing a variety of tasks in the parks.
Despite the sheer number of additional 20-somethings who arrive each fall, there is still debate about whether South Bend qualifies as a college town. For starters, what is the working definition of a college town, and does South Bend meet the criteria? Is it scale? Walkability? Quality of life? A sports fan culture? Do the local community-university partnerships make the difference? Must a city offer a certain number of bars or microbreweries on a main thoroughfare like in Madison, Wis.? Or pulse to a thriving music scene like the one found in Austin, Texas?
According to a publication called Livability, “True college towns are places where the identity of the city is both shaped by and complementary to the presence of its university, creating an environment enjoyable to all residents, whether they are enrolled in classes or not.” The publication also factors in cost of living and walkability.
Identity and cost of living are easy wins for South Bend. Walk- and bike-ability have improved drastically in the last decade. Residents and students alike enjoy the benefits of added pathways near the river and around town.
A Martin’s Super Market employee said it best: “We are always excited to see the students back in town!”