from Ivory Tower to Island

This past weekend was Homecoming at EIU. A week’s worth of events led up to the big game on Saturday, and school spirit bubbled up all over campus and community. On Saturday morning, the annual parade made it’s way through town, and I decided to go out and take a look. Just a few blocks from my house, I had an up close and personal street corner view of the festivities.

Go Big Blue

How big is this parade? Not big enough to close down the main road, Route 16. Every few floats or so, the cops would stop the traffic and let the cars go through. Truthfully, Route 16 runs straight through our town and on to other far more interesting places (Walmart), so they would be hard pressed to close off this major artery.

The local businesses pull trailers of kids in EIU gear, handing out free haircut coupons and tossing candy to the kids on the sidewalk. People running for office walk along the route shaking hands and handing out flyers. The churches, cable providers and banks are leading floats as well, supporting their causes. The expert wavers like Miss Coles County have their tiaras on and their smiles turned up to full wattage for the spectators.

The University community is out in full force for this event, as one would expect. The Greeks gain points all week long as they race toward an award for most involved fraternity or sorority. Some administrators ride by in convertibles, perched on the back seat and waving at the crowd. When the fire engine brings up the rear of the parade, I set off into town thinking that I might go see the square. After about three blocks, several house parties and one or two overflowing bars, I turn on my heel and head back to my apartment. Homecoming weekend is the wrong time to try to go out and explore the town.

When I worked at Lehigh, I witnessed the Ivory Tower complex in full effect. We had our own town gown problems. But I lived at arms-length, nestled in the neighborhood of my childhood, with a few exceptions of dorm life, apartment life and living overseas. I was never bothered by the drunks, or the trash, or other unsavory aspects of on-campus living. But I also had to worry about parking on campus and I wasn’t in walking distance of the gym, the stadium or the arts center. Now that I’m at Eastern, I’m within a mile of my office – an easy walk through tree lined streets. But I’m also surrounded by students.

Charleston is a college town. But so is Austin, Texas. The differences are obvious – Austin is huge, and although the population is largely students, it can survive on its own. There are thriving businesses, local shops, and what appears to be a working relationship between university and city. In Charleston, EIU is an island. The majority of professionals I have met choose to live outside the town, rather than in it, some choosing to commute from almost an hour away.

The sign that welcomes visitors to town says “Population: 21,000” … and EIU has a population of 11,000. The differences between the university community and its surrounding area are startling. If there are islands in the Midwest, I’m working on one.

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