A young boy is playing basketball after school in his backyard in South Bethlehem. He repeatedly shoots and hits his ball off of the back of his plastic Fisher-Price basketball hoop.
After a few shots he misses, and the ball rolls up to his neighbor’s fence, which is taller than he is. He runs to retrieve the ball to resume his game.
As he picks up the ball, he glances at the group of college students in the yard next to him. A metal chain-link fence is all that separates him and his game of basketball from Lehigh students and their game of flipcup during an afternoon BBQ.
His backyard, where he plays basketball, borders a house occupied by Lehigh students who throw parties. His family home, where he will grow up, neighbors a home where four or five different students will live each year.
As Lehigh students, we are transient members of the South Bethlehem community. We are generally here from August to May, and we don’t usually stay more than four or five years.
While we’re here, we tend to develop an “us vs. them” mentality. We’re Lehigh students, but they’re “townies.” We’re members of the Lehigh community, but they’re residents of the “Dirty B.”
It seems to go unnoticed that share a zip code with South Bethlehem residents. We share a town. We are not neighbors of the South Bethlehem community — we are members of the South Bethlehem community.
Because of this, our choices affect our neighbors. When we blast music on any given Tuesday night, our neighbors who will be up in a few hours for work can hear us singing every word in or out of unison.
Our partaking in seemingly usual college activities disrupts their daily lives. At the same time, we complain about the quality of the area, which is often different from the communities where many affluent Lehigh students were raised.
When Lehigh students visit Pantry 1 at midnight in a loud manner, they’re just being college students. When South Bethlehem residents shop for food there, they’re townies who have the audacity to not shop at Wegmans for their food.
Lehigh’s No. 5 ranking on The Princeton Review’s list of colleges where “town-gown relations are strained” makes sense. Regardless of how accurate this ranking is as it pertains to other schools’ relationships with their towns, it is important to acknowledge that, at least here, the relationship between students and members of the surrounding community is tense at best.
This relationship in part is affected by the stark contrast in the lives of Lehigh students compared to South Bethlehem residents. About one in four adults in the South Bethlehem community do not have a high school degree, according to the American Community Survey of 2014. On the contrary, a high school degree is necessary to live in South Bethlehem if you are attending Lehigh. As Lehigh students pay for meal plans that cost thousands of dollar every semester, 89 percent of Broughal students are eating free or reduced lunch every day because their families’ incomes are less than $45,000 a year — which is less than the tuition at Lehigh.
There are numerous programs run by Lehigh to partner with South Bethlehem residents to make a positive impact on the community, but these programs can only do so much. Unless we all change our vocabulary toward our fellow South Bethlehem residents, the relationship will continue to be strained.
We attend a school whose annual costs exceed what many of our neighbors make in a year to survive. We have achieved a level of education the boy playing basketball in his backyard may never have the opportunity to achieve, even though there is a university across the street.
Regardless of these differences, we are all members of the South Bethlehem community, even if we are only here for four years. If we don’t feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunities we have, we should at least feel obligated to respect the area in which we live.
We shouldn’t bounce around South Bethlehem as if we are better than the residents who live here all year long. We are all part of the Lehigh community. We are all part of the South Bethlehem community. Technically, we are all townies.