Study shows increased interaction between Lehigh students, Bethlehem residents improves community relations

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The use of terms like “Sketchlehem” to refer to the Bethlehem community and “townie” to refer to its residents is commonplace on Lehigh’s campus.

Although some students might consider them humorous, these terms are reflective of a deeper divide between Lehigh students and South Bethlehem residents. Anonymous data collected from 16 South Bethlehem residents and 126 Lehigh students shows a positive correlation between the amount of times the two groups interact with each other and their perception of the relationship between the groups.

“Calling people ‘townies’ allows a distinct other-ing that dehumanizes residents,” Megan McMichael, ‘17, said. “It is in this way that Lehigh students can leave behind their empathy for their neighbors. Better behavior from Lehigh students will most likely encourage a warmer reception from South Side residents.”

Designed by Anna Simoneau

The majority of Lehigh students who have attended one or more events on the South Side rate their interactions with South Bethlehem residents as positive. When students attend an average of two events, the student population views its relationship with residents in a favorable way.

Most South Bethlehem residents said they haven’t seen a significant change in their relationship with Lehigh students. Six of the 16 participants said the relationship had not changed at all over the last few years.

However, they said they would like to see a stronger relationship develop in the future. The majority of students who have attended any South Side events also want a stronger relationship to create a sense of community between the two groups.

“I think that students think the relationship with the South Side is negative because they don’t try to get to know any of the full-time residents,” Dani Joy, ‘17, said. “(Students) just go off of stereotypes and rumors.”

Carolina Hernandez, the director of the Community Service Office, works to improve Lehigh’s relationship with the local community by ensuring community members feel comfortable on Lehigh’s campus. She said when she first started at Lehigh, there were teenagers living in the homes surrounding Lehigh who had never even stepped foot on campus. Many local residents believed they were not allowed on university grounds.

“Our job is to be a good neighbor and work with each other, not for each other,” Hernandez said.

She said she is creating initiatives to develop bonds between students and the community.

One of these initiatives is Spring Fling, an event held since 2001 that encourages local families to come to campus for free food, activities and entertainment. Hernandez said she recently met a prospective student who has attended Spring Fling since first grade.

Another is the Pride Game, an event hosted by the Lehigh women’s basketball team. Celebrating the South Side’s LGBTQIA community, students from Donegan Elementary are invited to come and play basketball with the women’s team.

Basketball player Quinci Mann, ‘18, said it’s important to reach out to the community because of the difference in demographics between Lehigh and the South Side.

“In having a relationship with the Donegan kids, we are able to gain an appreciation for our privilege as Lehigh student-athletes,” Mann said, “as well as have a positive impact on these kids in encouraging them to be great students.”

Scott Burden, the assistant director of the Pride Center, said he places an emphasis on forming a relationship with the local community so residents will see the center as a community resource.

“Lehigh was not here first,” Burden said. “We want to honor the traditions and values of the community and we recognize that these residents have a lot to offer us.”

One female South Bethlehem resident said when she was growing up, Lehigh was known solely as an engineering and drinking school. However, she said the university’s status among locals has significantly changed for the better.

Designed by Anna Simoneau and Kelly McCoy

Another participant said she appreciates how much students help out in the community. According to the survey, South Bethlehem residents who participate in multiple events on campus tend to perceive a much stronger relationship between the two groups.

The South Bethlehem resident data showed very few people are disturbed by student activities. Most people cited parking as their main complaint, not noise. Burden also noted the noise violations as a common complaint but said the problem is not unique to Lehigh.

Hernandez said at times, residents do get frustrated with Lehigh students when they’re having parties on a weeknight.

“It takes deliberate planning and initiatives to develop a true community,” Hernandez said. “Change can only happen when everyone is invested and a part of the conversation. Change is most successful when everyone is involved and coming from a place of understanding.”

Despite the occasional incident, residents say Lehigh students are becoming better neighbors, contributing to a more positive relationship.

As one resident said, “I can only pray that the community and students realize that (Bethlehem) is a home for all.”

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