By Matthew LoConte
Doid… two doids… three doids… Don’t be so surprised that I wrote it; I am sure you have said it at some point just like I have. When our campus is open to the community and math still dictates that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, Union fits the bill for a place where students and city residents are bound to cross paths with each other.
Before coming to Union, I had never even heard of Schenectady, NY, knew nothing about its location, demographics, or history. But as soon as I spent my first month here as a freshman, I did find out one thing very quickly: the campus environment was very different from everything else outside our gates. I remember peering out the windows of Davidson facing Union Street and Nott Terrace. I used to be mesmerized by the people pushing shopping carts full of odds and ends, the endless stream of police cars racing down the road, and the arguing I could often hear from the window. It was so different from both the campus lifestyle and my environment growing up. In those first few months I had convinced myself, as many of my floormates had, that it was us versus them. A Berlin wall had been constructed around our campus, separating the rest of Schenectady from Union, and I was on the right side of it.
Halfway through my freshman year, I was fortunate enough to get a job working on an ambulance in the city. I was ecstatic; I knew the experience and knowledge I would gain as an EMT would far surpass that of my volunteer ambulance back home. But my excitement didn’t last forever. In my haze I had overlooked the real implications of my job, and the lack of protection my Union membership would provide me outside of the gates at 807 Union Street. Before I could think twice, I was in the thick of everything I had heard about only in rumors. The drugs, poverty and violence were all very real, and I was not only exposed to it, I was immersed in it. Hamilton Hill, Lincoln Heights, and Yates Village were no longer mysterious, crazy parts of the city, but rather places I visited on a regular basis.
Although my experiences were not always great, as these areas have a reputation for a reason, getting that job was invaluable, and not just for the medical experience either. I learned that behind all of the drugs, violence and poverty, there were people trying to make a living in spite of the hardship in front of them. Once I realized that, I knew that going to work was my small way at helping to give back to the community; it may not be much, but it was the one thing I knew I could do to make something better of my time at Union. So here is my plea—no, better yet, my challenge—for everyone to help improve Union: get outside our bubble and make a difference. Join Habitat for Humanity, volunteer some time to tutor a public school student, or even just say hi to that stranger walking past you on your way to class. Guess what: they usually say hi back. Am I suggesting you run to the middle of Craig Street in Hamilton Hill and start yelling how you are going to help them? No, and if you plan to, let me know so I can call the police beforehand.
The relations between Union and Schenectady are not going to change overnight, just as the Berlin wall did not come down in a day. Given a little time and just a little more effort, however, I feel that we can remove the sharp divide that exists, making Union a better place from the inside out.