John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

An Unplanned Opportunity for Community

T’was the week before Christmas 2009 and all over my mountain top in western North Carolina snow and then freezing rain and sleet and then more snow fell. It was a hard, frozen snow. The most we had had since The East Coast Blizzard of 1993. And our roads were not plowed for four days (due to State budget cut backs on personnel and equipment). I live with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, literally on the top of a mountain from which it is four miles down steep winding roads to civilization.

So we were presented with four days of opportunity for unprecedented community with our neighbors. Betsy suggested asking one neighbor couple over for dinner and they came. We had been wanting to do this for months and work and life were always interfering. And we got to know and discover them so much better in just one long relaxing evening.

And we went to a neighborhood party, given by a same sex couple, the first in our immediate community. We learned so much about their talents, a neat business they were starting, their challenges and progress in remodeling their home. And we were reminded of how many legal privileges Betsy and I enjoy but not all of our neighbors are accorded such equal treatment under the law.

And I discovered a neighbor who has lung cancer and desperately needed to get down off the mountain top for a radiation treatment. I was the only person he and his wife knew that not only had a four-wheel drive vehicle, but one with four “studded” snow tires. So I totally changed the plan I had established for my day to take this couple down off the mountain top, and succeeded in doing so.

The differences in my and my wife’s daily rhythm took a positive cumulative effect and almost like a child who got to miss school, I became thankful for this unplanned opportunity for community.

It also made me think of how so many characteristics now of the contemporary college and university work against community; prevent us from having a meal with “neighbors” that we intend to get to know better but never really do; prevent us from experiencing people who are different from us, right on our own campus; and prevent us from reaching out and discovering someone who really could use some assistance from us if only we would notice the need and offer to respond.

This sets me to thinking about what kinds of external factors can and should interrupt our daily rhythms to provide opportunities for unplanned community. And why we couldn’t just be more intentional about trying to create more opportunities for community, under our control, and not forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control.

Wouldn’t you make your campus just a little bit better this year than you will find it on January 4, 2010, if you intentionally create more opportunities for community within your sphere of influence, no matter what size that may be?

-John N. Gardner

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