Off-Campus Connections and Community

I’m getting to know Fort Street pretty well these days. Five days a week, I walk the fifteen minutes from my apartment to my Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 6.29.51 PMoffice and back along this street, which is like a little snapshot of all Victoria’s characteristics. I pass five antique shops, many, many gourmet eateries and coffee shops, the best used bookstore in town, and a few people asking passersby for change. But my favourite part of Fort Street is Cody.

Cody* is a golden retriever who spends his days lounging on the sidewalk outside Charmaine’s Home Collections. Often when I’m walking home in my office clothes, he’s sprawled out beside the sidewalk display of antique crates and stools, looking entirely bored. He’s an old dog, grey around the muzzle and a bit curmudgeonly; when I crouch to scratch him behind the ears, he barely lifts his head from the concrete. But when we do exchange glances, he levels me in his gaze, eyes half-closed, and I’m pretty sure he’s thinking what I’m thinking about antique furniture: “People actually pay that much money for stuff that you could find by the side of the road?” I like to think that we understand each other.

These blocks along Fort Street are, I suppose, my neighbourhood in the Grown-Up World; there’s even a concerted effort to encourage people to identify “Fabulous Fort” as its own unique community. And yet my brief chats with Cody are some of the only times I feel connected (and he’s not a great conversationalist). I live in a building with twenty-five units and recognize only a handful of people as my neighbours; of them, I know no one’s name. I can name on one hand people in the Greater Victoria community I feel close to that I didn’t meet through UVic.

I graduated from university five months ago, and in that time I’ve realized that it may be harder than I think to find my place in this city, even though it’s one I’ve lived in for five years.

***

I moved to Victoria in the fall of 2009, fresh out of high school and my parents’ house, ready to start life in a new town as a university student. It took me a few semesters to find my footing, but school became home for me. By the time I was finishing my degree, I’d walk through UVic’s leafy campus and say hello to five people or more in the ten-minute break between classes. For students, the sense of belonging to a community is built in. You have your dorm building, or your classes, or your student clubs. Most people around you are at a similar stage of life and you’re sure to find some who share your interests. And even though our school spirit in Canada is nowhere near the sometimes-nauseating levels you’ll find on campuses in the US, we as students are still tied together by some thread of an idea that is UVic.

Throughout my time as a student, my roots ran a mile deep on campus but they didn’t extend beyond the boundaries of Ring Road. The “city” was something to visit on a Friday night, not somewhere I belonged. It doesn’t help that the UVic campus is located in the depths of Oak Bay and Saanich suburbia; though Victoria proper isn’t far from campus, it isn’t immediate. And when your life revolves around school and you only get around by bus or bike, that distinction is important.

Not all students experience their cities in this disconnected way—particularly if they stay in their hometown while going to university. Across Canada, according to a poll RBC conducted last summer, 36% of students surveyed planned to live at home while attending school that fall. If the city you live in while attending school is the same place where you grew up and where your family lives, chances are that you already have some off-campus connections that make that city feel like yours.

At UVic, some 70% of the student body is from outside the Greater Victoria area; UVic communications likes to call it a  “destination university”. Most people are from somewhere else, and when they finish school, often facing discouraging job prospects in the Capital Regional District, many end up leaving again. In my circles, I know some students from elsewhere who have connected to communities off-campus in different ways—through church, for example, or by participating in political campaigns—but I think it’s pretty rare.

I am quite sure that I am not the only recent graduate who lives in a city other than my hometown who feels a little anonymous and adrift. (I can imagine this feeling must be heightened for those moving somewhere completely new for work post-graduation.) For the first time in my life, the site of my community is not obvious. I have to go out and make it for myself.

***

IMG_6759Something wonderful I’ve learned through my advocacy work over the past few years is that communities can be grounded not just in geography—they also arise from shared interests. And there are so many cool people doing cool things in Victoria, people whose interests match mine and whose projects and passion fill me with excitement. Maybe finding my place in this city is just a matter of hanging out where those people are, whether that’s a meeting of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, a coffee shop hosting a VicSlam poetry night, the office space of the social impact coworking centre The Dock or author readings happening at the Greater Victoria Public Library. I am young and engaged and brimming with energy, ready to make this city somewhere I feel I do belong.

Part of my engagement will be, I think, writing. When I first came to UVic, I felt similarly lost and anonymous and I started writing about student life and student politics as a way to navigate my place in that new university world. In the past few days, I’ve been thinking about again using my voice and my words as a way to explore this new and wonderful world that is Victoria. Who knows—maybe there’s an appetite out there for a blogger writing about all of the people, projects, and action that make this city such a great place to live.


*I’m pretty sure that this is the dog’s name; I heard someone I presumed to be one of the owners of the shop saying it just as I was walking away from a petting session one time.

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