College, its sense of place, and how it catalyzes responsibility to community

Ownership of a place, a spot on the earth that matters to you profoundly, is part of the college experience. It’s where one comes of age. Where one chose to be. It’s not the home sweet home of one’s parents nor a favorite vacation spot. It’s where one becomes the adult self, one’s first place of “me.”

Over the summer, I met a young man named Grady, now a senior in high school, at an event on the campus of his middle-school alma mater, North Country School, in Lake Placid, NY. North Country School is a boarding and day school for students in grades four through nine. This beautiful campus is nestled in Adirondack Park, cradled by several of the Park’s 46 mountain peaks. (Grady, a “46-er,” has climbed them all.) He’d been away for two years and when he looked up at the surrounding peaks, all of which he knew by name, he quietly said he had forgotten “just how beautiful this place is.”

If you ask the people of the school to describe their favorite place on campus (a question I’ve posed hundreds of times), invariably, they are all eager to describe it.

“The bench in the quad where everyone walks by.”

“The second floor lounge of the science building after dinner when it’s really quiet and I can rearrange the furniture just the way I want.”

“The lagoon.” [Yes, lagoon.]

“There is a high spot on the campus along the path from my dorm to the dining hall where I can look out over the tops of the buildings and see the lake.”

Students describe how that particular perch in the world is their “go to” place to relax, to center themselves. Even commuter students at public colleges (not particularly known for beautiful architecture), have a spot of their own, too.  

This sense of place as it relates to one’s school is powerful.

While many of us think fondly of our childhood home, it isn’t a place we chose, like we did our college. And, we chose our college, in part, because of how it made us feel when we first stepped foot on it. One’s collegiate home is one’s first “place of me,” a place of firsts where one takes on new responsibilities, forms new friendships, battles with new stress points, and celebrates new achievements. It is the first place a newly minted adult can call their own.

When I attended college (as a commuter student at a public college), the art gallery on campus was my refuge. I also fondly remember my routine of driving to campus, walking (sometimes for quite a long time) from the parking lot to class and how that afforded me the time to think about the day ahead. I looked forward to sitting at “my” table in the dining hall where the food service people knew me by name and friends would stroll by. Eventually, I became a docent at the gallery and that presented me with the opportunity to design an exhibition poster for an upcoming show. That was my first paid assignment and it catalyzed a decades long career in graphic design and marketing. I’ve heard a variation of my story dozens of times by students and graduates of colleges of every description: frequent a favorite place >> engage with its people >> discover opportunity.

So much that is written today about the value of a college education focuses on outcomes, such as the rate at which graduates land jobs. This is important, for sure. Less measurable, but perhaps just as important, though, is the effect that place has on a young person’s life, a place unlike any other in life where the intensity of academics is balanced by the serenity of belonging and where one’s interactions within its spaces form the arc of the life to be.

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IS PLACE PART OF A SCHOOL’S BRAND? Often, it is. Conversations with constituents and surveys of alumni will reveal the degree to which place should drive brand messaging. Look for the amount of frequency that current students, young alumni, and older alumni bring up its effect. If there is strong agreement, craft content about it. However, when marketing to prospective students, only deploy content about place in your paid media campaigns if you’re sure that it will resonate with the targeted persona group.  ~~ Questions? Be in touch; I’m happy to guide you through the content strategy steps that will help. 

~ Josanne is a founding principal of Cognitive Marketing, in Rochester, NY, a premier provider of brand and content strategy for educational institutions. Cognitive strives to make our content delightful and useful to educational leaders and marketers, increasing their sense of confidence and productivity so that their schools can meet enrollment goals and raise more revenue. Her twitter feed, @JosanneDeNatale focuses on #CollegeAccess and #EducationalEquality. She proudly serves on the board of the Horizons Student Enrichment Program at The Harley School, which provides summer learning and enrichment programs that helps students from low-income Rochester families succeed.

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