Putting the College in Collegeville: A Foundation for Community
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series that highlights Ursinus’s commitment, under the international Okanagan Charter, to the well-being of people, places, and planet. In this story, Ursinus Magazine explores “places” in the form of community engagement.
In what seems like a lifetime ago—before the COVID-19 pandemic—nearly 2,000 people flocked to the Ursinus campus to celebrate the college’s 150th anniversary. It was September 2019 and “150 Fest” was a true showcase of college and community vibrancy.
There is a thirst for more.
Fostering strong town-gown relationships is of utmost importance for local community and institutional leaders. Colleges and universities have far-reaching cultural, societal, and economic impacts on their surrounding regions and—while those relationships can sometimes be strained—working collectively toward a shared vision of community building makes both sides unequivocally stronger.
In fact, many would say that colleges have an obligation to be more outward facing than insular, serving their surrounding communities in a way that is mutually beneficial.
That has now been true for Ursinus and Collegeville for years.
“The presence of the college has contributed to an amazing quality of life for our residents,” said Collegeville Borough Council President Cathy Kernan, a 30-year borough resident. “When I first moved here, it was described to me as a hidden jewel. Ursinus has truly embraced its mandate as a liberal arts campus and has opened their offerings to all of us.”
Here is a chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, Collegeville or Ursinus College? The answer might come as a surprise to non-history buffs. Collegeville, Pa., was originally known as Freeland, but was renamed as a tip of the cap to several early colleges located in what is now the borough: Freeland Seminary (founded in 1848) and the Pennsylvania Female College (founded in 1851). Ursinus came along in 1869, becoming the eponymous institution of higher learning synonymous with its surrounding community.
Over the past several years, Ursinus has become a welcome community resource, Kernan said. The college hosts meetings of the Collegeville Rotary; residents are invited to walk, bike, or run the campus’s 170 acres; the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art and theater and dance performances are a cultural lynchpin; sports fans can revel in Division III athletic competition and send their children to sports camps; and families are invited to participate in summer “Movies on the Lawn” events.
In a recent college reputation and awareness survey, the response from Collegeville officials and local industry and business partners was overwhelmingly positive. In short, they expressed a desire to work alongside Ursinus as much as possible—which is not always the case in college towns.
Last October, Ursinus President Robyn Hannigan signed the international Okanagan Charter, committing the college to embedding intentional wellness initiatives into the entire Ursinus experience—a commitment that extends to people, places, and planet. What does that mean for places? Well, for starters, thriving community partnerships.
“We live in this community together, and it extends far beyond our campus,” said Heather Lobban-Viravong, Ursinus’s vice president for inclusion and community engagement. Her division was established a year ago and oversees efforts to make Ursinus a welcoming community for people from all backgrounds and people in all roles, including those within the larger Collegeville community.
“Community engagement is about making personal, meaningful connections with partners so that we can grow together and make an impact together,” Lobban-Viravong said.
Most colleges and universities are involved in civic engagement initiatives that touch on shared values between the institution and the comminutes they serve. At Ursinus, community service programs such as UCARE (the Ursinus Center for Advocacy, Responsibility, and Engagement) are managed by Lobban-Viravong’s team, and more than 60 percent of Ursinus students participate in at least one service activity per year.
“Community service plays such an important role in the intellectual and moral development of many of our students,” said Christian Rice’98, associate dean for civic learning and director of the Bonner program. “Their service to our community is often the opportunity for them to bring to life their classroom learning by experiencing firsthand the issues and dynamics they have studied. I think Ursinus distinguishes itself by the thoughtful way our students do service. It’s not just a matter of completing a certain number of hours; it’s about reflecting on why service needs to be done in the first place. What structural injustices are contributing to this problem and how might we seek solutions?”
Our students often become invaluable assets to the community partners with which they serve, said Rice, who is also an assistant professor of philosophy and the humanities. They serve in a number of capacities and often go beyond direct service to assist in grant writing and capacity-building projects for their partners.
There’s an opportunity to build on that.
The community cooperation project, a collaboration between Lobban-Viravong’s Division of Inclusion and Community Engagement and the Office of Career and Post-graduate Development, will allow students to have 1-on-1 interactions with government and industry leaders.
“We want to give students an opportunity to establish a relationship with them so that they learn what it means to be the mayor of Collegeville, for instance, and to understand those perspectives,” Lobban-Viravong said. “I want students to understand what makes a community tick and the different motivations that people have for contributing to the community around them. And in doing so, I want students to feel like they belong here.”
Additionally, a new business partners program launching this summer will build a network of business owners of color who can connect with each other and with the college to share resources and ideas. And Lobban-Viravong wants to engage more faculty and staff in service initiatives.
So, where is Ursinus going from here?
The college is launching a new strategic framework that will, under President Hannigan, guide the college over the next several years. One of the three pillars of the framework sets Ursinus on a course to amplify its reach and reputation through mutually beneficial partnerships across all sectors, reinforcing the college’s role as an anchor institution and core collaborator.
Connecting Ursinus with government, industry, and community leaders can create more opportunities to build a shared vision. That, in turn, can help drive positive change and, potentially, revitalization efforts that could breathe new life into Main Street.
Kernan remembers a time when Collegeville served as the commercial hub for the area. Students and residents could walk to supermarkets, pharmacies, retail spaces, restaurants, and more. But those services had been usurped by the “lifestyle mall” off the Route 422 corridor which has siphoned businesses from downtown Collegeville.
Ursinus and its Collegeville neighbors now share a unified vision of economic revitalization for the borough, and Kernan said there is a desire to attract unique businesses to Collegeville. Recent resident and student surveys show that more than 90 percent of respondents want a revitalized Main Street.
“A vibrant downtown will help all of us,” she said. “People want a place to go locally, and we want to attract businesses will be unique to Collegeville. We want to keep our small-town charm. That’s an asset we share with the college.”
Together, college and borough leaders have applied for state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds to re-envision the Main Street corridor as a creative community hub that generates opportunities for interaction between Ursinus students and Collegeville and Montgomery County residents.
And recently, Ursinus and community leaders gathered to celebrate the generosity of longtime Collegeville resident, business owner, and philanthropist Vince Raffeo, who donated the Chow restaurant building on Main Street to the college—something that could lay the groundwork for more revitalization.
The work is just beginning.
“We’re true partners,” Kernan said. “We want this together.”
“There’s a real partnership and a mutual respect between us,” Lobban-Viravong said. “We ultimately want the best for the community. There’s a shared vision for the future of Collegeville and that’s very exciting.”
Editor’s Note: For “planet” and our liberal arts approach to sustainability, read the digital March issue. More stories about how we’re shaping the community around us will be featured in upcoming issues.