While I love college, there is one thing that never sat right with me about the experience. Countless students come from across the country, inhabit a city for a few years, and then often leave without a trace. Sure, they join clubs and create a pseudo-community of their own, but they rarely look up to see the brush – and burning flames – around them. I can give many examples of this, but one stands out to me from this past fall. I was organizing with a local group outside of the East Liberty Target, and we were trying to engage students in conversations about the city’s budget. However, the students we tried to speak with had little interest in learning about the issue as they bustled back to campus. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s an indication of a larger issue: the fact that college students often do not view themselves as community members, and therefore do not take care of the community as their own.
My first year at Pitt fit the aforementioned stereotype, being very insular by nature. I was, and still am, involved with on-campus clubs such as JumpStart, Best Buddies, and the Turkish Language Table. Most of my time was spent on campus, but over the years that changed. My sophomore year I became more interested in environmental issues, helping to organize the first ever Pittsburgh Youth Climate Strike and other related initiatives in the city and across the state. At the same time, I was getting involved with campus initiatives like the Student Office of Sustainability and Fossil Free Pitt. This was when I started seeing connections between student orgs and social issues, and the opportunity to strengthen connections between the two.
Just as I started to understand my responsibility to be an active community member, I ended up leaving the city altogether – for eleven months. My long stint studying abroad was great for global learning, but there was always a part of me itching to return home. When I finally did, I had no idea how to regain a sense of community amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, I was able to find some great local organizations still doing community work. In the process, I found that most of those involved were already from Pittsburgh and far removed from the undergraduate experience. That was when my friend and I decided to start the Collective Action Club (CAC) at Pitt.
This past fall, we launched the CAC with two goals: 1) start conversations about social justice and human rights issues at the local, national, and international level, and 2) get college students to address these issues by getting involved with local organizations. Although you might not be interested in the CAC per se, I do challenge you to branch out in your extra-curricular activities. On-campus orgs are great, but knowing about and improving the broader community you have come to cohabitate is something we should all strive to do. There are other groups on campus that you can plug into, such as the Pittsburgh Human Rights Cities Task Force which I also serve on, and that can oftentimes be the easiest way to get started. You can also look for local opportunities for involvement in the news, on social media, and by word of mouth. The Honors College offers its own pathways to community engagement, whether it be through one of its research or civic scholarships.
While I valued my experiences abroad, my most important work has been done right here in the Steel City. While at Pitt, find a cause that affects the community, not just college students, and find a way to get involved. Some of your most profound moments in college will happen off-campus; don’t blink, or you may miss them.