When out-of-town students arrive on the campuses of colleges like St. Peter’s and New Jersey City University (NJCU), even if they’re from another part of New Jersey, their knowledge of the community outside their campus boundaries is generally limited.
By senior year they may have become accustomed to the area immediately around school or perhaps a few downtown hot spots—but what about the rest of Jersey City? Thanks to the inclusion of some hands-on, out-of-the-classroom coursework, students at Jersey City’s colleges are graduating with a much more intimate knowledge of our city.
When Julio Herrera came to St. Peter’s University from Bricktown, N.J., to study International Business and Trade, he wasn’t very familiar with the city surrounding his college campus.
“I knew very little of Jersey City,” says Julio, a 2013 graduate of the university. “I knew it existed, but I really had never visited.”
As he made friends and began to branch out off campus, he liked what he saw. Soon he was introduced to the Heights by both a fellow student and a professor. Walking along Central Avenue was such a profound experience that he was drawn to take part in a sociology project his senior year focusing on that important business corridor.
Professors Mary Kate Naatus and Alex Trillo have teamed up for the past few years to lead the students through a project analyzing businesses along the Central Avenue retail corridor in the Heights from a business and sociology perspective respectively.
“One of the first things I noticed was there are a lot of the same businesses in a small area,” Julio says. “Textbook-wise, that wouldn’t make sense. But what was really cool about this research and class was realizing it really is such a diverse community, they each have a place in that one community.”
For example, Julio notes that dollar stores owned by people of different ethnicities tend to carry specialized products catering to their demographic in addition to the regular dollar-store fare.
“The overall experience was beneficial,” he says. “It gives me a sense and awareness that even though you’re in a business school, it’s very important to get yourself out there and do your own research. We learned above and beyond what the classroom could have taught us.”
Alberto Groves, another 2013 graduate who worked on the project, agrees. The Psychology and Latin American Studies major from the Bronx was a commuter student his entire time at St. Peter’s.
“Being a commuter student, it sort of detaches you from campus and community spirit,” Alberto says. “But this project made me learn and get involved. You can’t help but take that into you.”
Julio, who is currently in the process of settling into a new place as he takes on a job at his alma mater, says he’s fallen in love with the small, rich communities of Jersey City’s “big city.”
“I really enjoyed living there,” he says. “I feel like I just touched the surface. I can’t wait to dive in.”
Immersed in the issues
College administrators are often the front line for students’ introduction to the city via orientation, but it’s the teaching faculty—and their own connections with the city—that has brought the city to life for students.
Donal Malone, associate professor of sociology and urban studies at St. Peter’s University, leads groups of students on a variety of projects with New City Kids, a local afterschool program, as part of their senior seminar coursework.
The experience brings statistics to life for the students as they delve into topics such as incomes, teen pregnancy, and high-school graduation rates.
In previous years, coursework for that seminar has included a conference on youth violence and its impact on education.
Though he hails from the Bronx, Donal has immersed himself in Jersey City news and politics over his 20-year tenure and says that connecting students with local issues can help shine a light on challenges that real families face.
“I’m hoping they get a greater understanding of social issues and social problems,” he says. “Especially the complexity of them.”
Michelle Atkinson, a 2013 St. Peter’s graduate who participated in Donal’s seminar, says the experience was “eye-opening.”
Michelle, who is from Paulsboro, N.J., didn’t know much about Jersey City before arriving on campus and ventured off campus only a few times during her first couple of years at the university.
But the New City Kids program, she says, acquainted her with the area and with real sociology issues.
“You can read a bunch of statistics, but I thought it was really nice to sit down and talk to these kids,” she says. “I really feel like I got to know who they were.”
Community as inspiration and stage
At NJCU, there is also an intentional, campus-wide mission to get students interacting in Jersey City. Classes are taught at Harborside Financial Center, educational walking tours are set up around the city, and the Jersey City Public Library hosts a variety of artistic exhibits and events for students. NJCU is also the sole educational partner of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
When students wanted to get their artwork out to the community, Professor Jane Steuerwald facilitated the Urban Image Showcase to bring the best of students’ work to venues all over Jersey City and Hudson County. She has curated the show for the past 10 years.
Jane’s students in the Media Arts Department also created a film called “Jersey City: 24 Hours in Public Places,” which was screened at the Beacon. The video documentary, inspired by the 1980s NPR radio documentary “NYC: 24 Hours in Public Places,” explores the many diverse cultural, historic, gritty, and eccentric places that make up the city of Jersey City.
Students went out to various locations throughout the day and night to record one-minute segments of footage for the homage which includes images like the Holland Tunnel at 6 a.m., a schoolyard at 8 a.m., and a bodega at 8 a.m.
The students handled the entire production, down to the musical score.
“Our students are very, very talented and their work is really powerful,” Jane says. “They have stories to tell and they want to tell them. My job is to facilitate.”
This fall, Jane’s class is working on a new video project focusing on various aspects of Jersey City life. That project, too, will have a special connection with Jersey City venues.
“The whole point of making film and video is to share it with an audience,” Jane says. “And a classroom is not a real audience.”
In the field
While some professors choose to focus on the grit of Jersey City, others prefer the grass.
When NJCU Dean Barbara Feldman (of the William J. Maxwell College of Arts and Sciences) launched a thematic semester initiative in the Fall of 2011 encouraging faculty to create courses with an urban focus, Cindy Arrigo of the Biology Department responded with the idea for creating walking tours centered on the Grove of Remembrance in Liberty State Park.
The walking tours give insight to the hub of activity that once surrounded the old railroad station, offer discussion on abandoned brownfields, and stress the importance of green and open space in urban areas like Jersey City.
They were so popular that they were held four times that year and have been held once every year since, attracting students from all disciplines as well as members of the community.
From a biology standpoint, students are given the opportunity to sample different areas of the park and participate in Cindy’s research of brownfield mircoflora.
“That’s where the real learning takes place,” Cindy says. “People come to know by doing.”
Putting research to work in the city
Urban field research doesn’t stop when summer hits. At St. Peter’s University, instead of heading home, students like Julio and Alberto continue their research on Central Avenue.
Professors Mary Kate Naatus and Alex Trillo live in the area, which was part of the impetus for their interest in the project.
Alex says that, as a sociology professor, he was interested in having his students find out more about why people chose to open the type of businesses that they do along Central Avenue, especially with so many offering duplicate services in a small area.
“So we organized some students and came up with a survey and hit the streets,” says Alex.
For Mary Kate, a professor of business administration, it was the opportunity to get the students involved in a hands-on project.
“I want to do more realistic projects in my classes,” says Mary Kate. “Rather than do a marketing plan that only I and the rest of the class sees, I’d like to partner with businesses that need actual help. Students get experience on a real project, interacting with a real business owner. It’s a win-win.”
Students apply data-analysis skills in a real-time environment, having to take into account various factors like the overall community vision—or lack thereof—hours of operation, and access to community programs.
Students speak Spanish and Mandarin to interview shop owners in their native tongues. One student spoke five languages, including Tamil.
The next part of the process will be figuring out how to implement recommendations, feedback, and perhaps even a consulting program based on the students’ findings.
For now, findings are presented at a research festival at St. Peter’s each year as well as submitted as a presentation to one of the local conferences with the Eastern Sociological Society, which hosts events in various locations from Boston to Baltimore.—JCM