In my 20 years living on this planet, I’ve had the chance to live in five different states and seven different towns.
I have vivid memories of celebrating my birthday at a playground in Princeton, going sledding down a hill that was way too steep for me in Lancaster, and even accidentally kicking my soccer ball on top of an elementary school in Cleveland, to name a few locations.
I may not have lived in any of these towns for more than five years, but they all managed to leave their mark on me. A lot of that had to do with not only the neighborhoods themselves, but all the people that I became friends with and talked to.
I can’t remember a single instance where my mom told me to stay away from the neighbors. She was obviously wary of strangers—as any mom would be—but she encouraged me to keep an open mind when meeting new people.
When I came to Lehigh two years ago, it was like moving to a new neighborhood all over again. I had to get used to my new surroundings and new neighbors, and I had to make new friends, too.
During my freshman and sophomore years, I quickly became accustomed to the ‘bubble’ that is Lehigh. My friends and I lived in dorms during these two years, so besides the rare off-campus dinner excursion or the occasional haircut, we never really had a reason to leave campus.
As sophomore year came to an end, however, we had to make a choice: to live on campus or in off-campus housing during our junior year. My friends immediately wanted to live in a house, but my mom was unsure. Money was a factor, but my mom also felt she would be more comfortable if I remained on campus for another year.
As I asked other sophomores where they would be living next year, many of them echoed—and even amplified—my mom’s sentiments. They thought that living off-campus would be “too sketchy” or “too dangerous.” I’ve even heard Lehigh students refer to Bethlehem as “Sketch-lehem,” a term that I’ve come to hate.
Looking back, I can almost guarantee that those same students calling Bethlehem “sketchy” would say the same about some of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in when I was younger. They’ve decided to define an entire town by one word, and after moving into an off-campus house, I can gladly say that’s not the case.
As much as Lehigh pushes for diversity and inclusion on campus, many students have simultaneously closed their minds to anything and anyone directly outside of the Lehigh bubble.
I have not lived off-campus very long, but one of the first things I noticed was that these “townies,” as Bethlehem residents are sometimes dubbed, are normal people. I don’t know why that came as a shock to me when I first began exploring the South Side, but it did.
I had to walk around South Bethlehem and talk to strangers for one of my journalism classes, for example, and I dreaded having to talk to the locals. It seemed almost taboo. But again, immediately after talking to them, I realized how kind the people were and how willing they were to talk to me.
I don’t want to sound like I’m preaching from my soapbox and say that I’ve engaged with the Bethlehem community more than anyone else, but I think it’s important to remember to keep an open mind.
The completion of SouthSide Commons means there are more students living off-campus than ever before, but it can be just as easy to make SouthSide an extension of Lehigh’s bubble.
Even if your neighbor isn’t a Bethlehem resident, I encourage everyone to explore Bethlehem and finally break out of their comfort zone on campus. Just by going on a walk or a run on local trails can give you a picture of Bethlehem that you may have never seen before. It may open your eyes and change how you feel about the community you’re living in.
It can be easy to forget being a part of the Lehigh community is the same as being part of the Bethlehem community. When we graduate, Lehigh’s bubble will finally burst, and it can be a harsh transition into the real world.
By merely beginning the process of straying outside of that bubble, your experiences at and after Lehigh will benefit immeasurably.