August 2009 – Urban universities across the world like to claim that their host city is the school’s campus, but what must a university do to succussfully create this healthy connection between student and city? This past year I’ve been a student at two urban universities, each introducing me to their respective cities in different ways. The University of Pittsburgh is my primary university and this past semester I had the opportunity to study at the Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires.
The University of Pittsburgh’s campus and college culture is so gigantic that it often overshadows city life. Pitt students can easily find themselves absorbed in the exciting campus culture and forget that there’s an interesting city all around them. It becomes an institution-to-city relationship rather than a student-to-city relationship. This isn’t always a bad thing since student life is often enhanced from such strong institutional ties to the city with benefits like free city transportation, free entry to museums and student programs that make the arts or opportunities for volunteering more accessible to students.
The Universidad de Belgrano is one of Buenos Aires’s elite private schools yet university culture doesn’t flourish like it does in U.S schools. Belgrano is comprised of one high rise buildings with almost no surrounding campus aside from a few cafes along the street. Students simply commute to-and-from class, maybe they meet up with friends after class for café con leche to discuss a school project or review for an exam, but I didn’t get the sense that students feel like they are part of a larger university culture. There aren’t dormitories or campus housing options so students are forced to disperse throughout the city in various apartment complexes and student residences which are dormitories but with no association to any educational institution. Argentine students coming from different areas of the country are put in the position to explore Buenos Aires on their own and shape their own city life without much influence from their university. Two schools, two different cities, two distinct ways of integrating city life with student life, but which is more effective in creating a bond between city and student?
I’ve lived in a city for my entire life so I arrived in Pittsburgh as a freshman student ready to explore my new city and my new world away from home. For many students, it was their first time living in a city so naturally they approached their new world more cautiously than I did. As a freshman, I thought everyone was excited and motivated to explore their new Pittsburgh environment, but as time passed I learned that most students weren’t competent city navigators and didn’t know much about the various Pittsburgh neighborhoods. I was surprised by how little students left campus and how rarely students ventured out to participate in city culture.
I’ve found that most students prefer to be active within university organizations and choose to participate in campus life rather than city life. The abundance of energetic and lively student organizations is actually quite amazing. Pitt, short for University of Pittsburgh, does a wonderful job of creating a vibrant campus life for students. There is a strong sense of community and togetherness within the university but what about this same sense of belonging between students and the city?
Pitt provides students with a variety of tools that allow them to become active members of the city yet many students still largely neglect citywide activity. It isn’t a lack of resources, rather, it’s simply that university life is so abundant and rich that it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole city culture out there. Pitt gives students all the utilities needed to thrive both as a member of the school and a member of the city, so an individual student can decide on their own how much they would like to participate in both campus and city life.
Buenos Aires is a major global metropolis so it might seem like an impossible place for new students to carve out their own urban niche, yet nearly every university student I met in Buenos Aires is active in city life and can effectively travel about the city.
I could be the comprehensive public transportation system that encourages city participation or simply the lack of a strong campus life that discourages a thriving university scene, either way, I’ve found that students in Buenos Aires prefer to engage with city life rather than campus life. Argentine students are mobile members of the city and are armed with a secret navigational weapon – the Guia’t. The Guia’t is a public transportation handbook sold in subways and news stands with detailed maps and listings of all public transportation services available in the city. The Guia’t can be found in just about every porteño’s, person living in Buenos Aires, handbag or backpack.
During my stay in Buenos Aires, I lived in a student residence one block away from the National Congress building in the center of town. The shared kitchens and living spaces of the residence were home to a variety of international and Argentine university students. Most of the Argentine students went to different universities throughout the city and only knew a few people before arriving in the big city so they were nearly as new to Buenos Aires as the international travelers.
The six story residence building takes after an Italian style of architecture, complete with open door balconies, elegantly decorated hallways and a cafe occupying the first floor below. There are sixteen dormitory rooms on each floor, two fully outfitted kitchens, seven bathrooms and one common room. As you can tell by the cozy accommodations, everyone on the floor knew each other well, often too well. We called this place the “Res,” short for residence or residencia and there was a distinct culture that formulated on each floor based on the people living there.
As the months passed and my Spanish improved, so did my relationship with the Argentine students on my floor. Besides the six other American girls in my semester program, these Argentine students were my emotional rock during my stay. On July 12th, when I was standing on the curb, loading my bags into a taxi headed for the airport, the emotional mood reflected the fact that I was about to checkout of some well earned friendships. Despite the sadness, ultimately I knew that I was returning home where two great communities in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were waiting for me.
Pittsburgh is hardly a big city like Buenos Aires, but within a month of moving there I had a large community of acquaintances and soon-to-be friends. Universities in the U.S provide students will a strong university base where they can cultivate their university life and expand outwards into city life.
My student life in Buenos Aires was similar to that of my Argentine friend’s student life in the sense that my friends came from where I lived, not my school. I had friends I chatted with and joked around with when I went to school but I never hung out with any of them during my free time. Of the friends I made at Belgrano, most of them came from my tango class. Obviously, a dance class creates a more intimate setting than the classroom, but I still only established a few decent friendships from my classes. University life wasn’t a big part of my experience in Buenos Aires. Students from outside of the U.S coming to the University of Pittsburgh can expect that university life will play a significant role in shaping their experience in the States.
The question becomes, which university approach is better at creating a connection between the student and the city – a school that creates large social communities and provides a rich campus life but also builds a scenario where the student body often neglects the city, or a school that doesn’t participate much in a student life, forcing students to shape their own city world?
I went to Buenos Aires for the city and for the language. I went to the University of Pittsburgh for the institution itself. I’m glad the Universidad de Belgrano didn’t play a significant role in my life abroad because I was given the freedom to enjoy the city I came to experience. I wouldn’t want this same scenario for my primary university experience – I thrive off the energy that emanates from a rich campus life.
I think the campus community is an important part of a university experience. It’s thrilling to be surrounded by young, energetic intellectuals my same age and to be part of an institution that provides all sorts of interesting activities and organizations for its students. Strong institutional support helps students build a community and a campus that allows student life to flourish.
Ultimately, it’s an individual student’s choice to be active or not in greater city culture and I think Pitt does a good job providing all of the necessary tools to create an exciting city life for students if they choose to participate.
Universidad de Belgrano was a quiet presence in my Buenos Aires life which was fine with me as a visitor, but I’d prefer a more active university life for my primary university experience. I believe a good urban university should provide students with the tools necessary to integrate city life into their university world so they can truly make the city their campus.