Lacking a college try

Quiet: Baltimore-area students shy away from mixing it up with their peers.

September 11, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

With nearly two dozen colleges enrolling more than 100,000 students, Greater Baltimore may have the makings of a college town. But getting students to act the part - especially on a Monday night - can be a challenge.

What was supposed to be the ultimate student mixer, with as many as 4,000 students from 13 of those colleges turning out at the downtown Power Plant Live complex last night for dancing and mingling, turned out to be somewhat less.

Three hours into the event planned by Collegetown Network, a consortium of Baltimore-area colleges and universities, about 200 had arrived on buses from their campuses.

Students said the under- whelming response was further proof of the obstacles Baltimore faces as it tries to sell itself as a hotbed of higher education and student activity. With the city's various campuses so dispersed, they said, conjuring up a sense of a college community requires events like last night's - an artificial approach that doesn't always work.

"This is not what I expected. I've never seen Bar Baltimore [a nightclub at the complex] when it's not crowded," said Luis Diaz, a senior at Goucher College. "But it's ideal for me because I need room to dance."

Diaz and his friends said they came for the event because it offered a rare easy entry to the nightclubs that they otherwise have to stand in long lines for on weekends. The schools in the Collegetown Network, which advertised the event at freshman orientations and other campus events, had chipped in to supply free food and hired two bands to play for the crowd.

But because of the event's timing, the students weren't surprised that more of their classmates hadn't joined them.

"Who the [heck] is going to come out on a Monday night? We've got classes in the morning," said Christina Showalter, a College of Notre Dame senior. "Most of Baltimore's schools are serious, do-your-work schools."

Collegetown Network organizers said that Monday night was the only time they could use Power Plant Live, and held out hope that more students would turn up as the night wore on. The gray skies may have helped depress turnout, added Bill Sematick, director of student involvement at the Johns Hopkins University, who had expected 500 of his undergraduates.

The event was to be the largest to date organized by Collegetown Network, which was formed five years ago to increase collaboration among area schools. The network has started a Web site with a calendar of campus events; created a student-friendly map of the city; and runs a shuttle between Johns Hopkins, Towson University, Loyola College, Notre Dame and Goucher that last year carried 60,000 riders.

Students said they appreciate some of these efforts, especially the shuttle, which the network is hoping to expand to other campuses. One of the main reasons Baltimore hasn't attained the reputation of college towns such as Boston, students said last night, is that its schools aren't closely clustered and lack public transportation linking them.

"If you don't have a car, you can't do anything," said Allison Goldman, a Goucher College freshman.

If area colleges really want to create the aura of a buzzing college town and encourage students to mix with their peers at other schools, students said, they should provide the resources for students to organize more spontaneous events on their own.

One such success occurred last fall, network officials said, when Maryland Institute College of Art students involved in the network encouraged students at other schools to come to the art school's annual Halloween bash.

So many students showed up that the school eventually had to close the door.

"Students have two ideas about what events are cool and what events are uncool," said College of Art spokeswoman Kim Carlin, before last night's event. "Ones we dream up are uncool, and ones they dream up are cool."

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