LA PLATA, Md. – My youngest son has discovered folk music. So, every evening I hear him strumming his guitar as he tries to master yet another song from my own youth. The latest earworm he has gifted me with is John Denver’s stanza, “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.” This phrase—the place I belong—has gotten me thinking about place and about the meaning of place.
I have had the opportunity to work with many architects on building projects over the years. The good ones not only talk about designing a building but creating a sense of space for people in a building. Spaces for people to work comfortably, to gather for informal conversations and to feel connected to their environment and the people around them. But space is not place. A sense of place is an entirely different thing.
A sense of place is somewhat of an intangible concept. It is the coming together of a physical setting with events that bring meaning and context to our lives. Think of holidays spent at your grandmother’s house or a favorite vacation spot you return to year after year. The emotional connections of your accumulated memories and shared experiences in these spaces have transformed it into a place—a place that helps give meaning to the experiences of your life; a place that provides a sense of comfort; a place where you belong.
Those of us who work at community colleges strive to create a sense of place for our students, our employees, and our communities. We try to do this by bringing people together through shared values and experiences. Our values include collaboration, equity, excellence, inclusivity, innovation, integrity, and respect. And our shared experiences include learning together in classrooms, working together on projects, sharing a meal at a picnic, or cheering on a sports team. It is the interplay of these values and experiences that occur in a space that creates our sense of place—a place where we feel accepted and supported and where we can challenge ourselves and others with new ideas and new concepts as we learn and grow together.
Then came COVID-19.
In March 2020, colleges and universities across the country sent students home, closed their campus gates, and limited access to their space. We pivoted and pivoted again. Traditional classes gave way to online learning. Traditional offices gave way to teleworking. Meetings gave way to Zoom calls. Our sense of both space and place were disrupted.
But an interesting thing happened. As we lost our spaces, we discovered that we had not lost our college places. Well, at least not entirely. The character of our places, the spirit of our places, and the love of our places remained—even in the most confusing days of the pandemic. We found that our shared values and experiences were not bound to a particular space but rather created a place that could live beyond the gates of a college. While our experiences help us attach meaning to a space, it is ultimately not the space that creates a sense of place but the shared experiences themselves. A sense of place can be anywhere—in-person or virtual—we feel accepted and supported by others.
But as learning and working from home stretched on for months and months, our shared sense of place waned. Without sharing space with others—especially our new students and new colleagues—we lost many of those opportunities that help create connections, camaraderie, and community. We discovered that while a sense of place remained strong for those who had roots in our college community it was harder to foster a sense of place for those new to our community. We learned that it is important for us to share space together from time to time to nurture a sense of place together.
As we continue to chart our new normal in this post-pandemic world, we will build on these lessons learned. We will continue to provide spaces for students, employees, and our communities to build connections. But we will also recognize that we do not always have to share a physical space to be part of a shared place. Because as we have learned, a place is where we belong—and if we are successful, it is a place where all can belong.
By Dr. Bill Comey
Vice President of Operations and Planning