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Why colleges need coffee shops

| Thursday, March 2, 2017

Going to college is an ideal in almost every human culture. As one of the major societal sifts that humans pass through on their way from adolescence to adulthood, college has many purposes. For some students, it provides the skills needed to take the next step in life. For others, it simply helps discern what the next step will be.

College also provides us with a splash of the real world before we are fully baptized in it, like learning how to scuba dive in a pool before leaping into the ocean. It is during this extracurricular training that we are supposed to learn how to actually be an adult: how to make ourselves and those around us happy, how to support society as much as it has supported us, and how to work and live in an extremely complex and diverse world.

Classes usually fulfill the function of skill-acquisition, and advisors deal with discernment, so the challenge of teaching us these larger life lessons tends to fall on other structures around campus. For the sake of efficiency, these different duties are often delegated to specific structures that are purposefully designed to perform them.

At Notre Dame, we can imagine that Campus Ministry plays the part of teaching us about joy, and the Center for Social Concerns shows us how to give back to society, but what prepares us to work and live in an extremely complex and diverse world? Where are we supposed to go to gain the courage to speak our minds, without losing the humility we’ll need to change them? Or to find the wonder and tenacity necessary to keep asking important questions, in addition to the understanding that there are many ‘right’ answers?

In my opinion, this responsibility falls on us, because most of these virtues require an intrinsic motivation to fully develop. That being said, college campuses could further empower our efforts by creating environments that make these goals explicit and easier to accomplish. So what would such an environment look like?

For starters, it has to be publicly neutral to attract people of all opinions and perspectives, and openly inviting to make them feel comfortable coming alone. Once it draws them in, it must be relaxing enough to help people lower their guard, but also set up in a way that inspires them to meet strangers and break the small talk barrier. Finally, if it’s going to provoke free thinking and incubate open-minded dialogue, it will also need to provide substance to sustain these activities; something like a warm caffeinated beverage and sugary snacks to go with it.

Equally as important as creating this territory of intellectual exploration is ensuring that it isn’t quickly colonized by interrogative interviewers or steadfast studiers. Both of these activities have their own respective places on campus. To allow them to pirate a student’s sole space to ask questions about anything and everything, with the lone goal of gaining a better understanding, is to keep students from fully grasping the complexity and diversity of the world that they will soon plunge into.

Thus, it is with both my own, and the whole of humanity’s future in mind, that I beg for the resurrection and protection of the archetypal college coffee shop. The world, and colleges in particular, need these spaces to help people understand each other.

Additionally, I urge all of us students, myself included, to do one less thing. Instead of giving up chocolates or TV for Lent, why not quit a group, drop a class, and free up some time? Then, rather than finding a new resume-building commitment to sign up for, go sit in a coffee shop and start a conversation.

When we do this, we need to leave small talk at the door. Notre Dame introductions and weekend recaps must be replaced by brave new questions about the bigger challenges in life. Then, as an end in and of itself, not just the means to earning more participation points, we can have a messy, challenging, and uncomfortable conversation. It will be difficult, but it will also be impactful, and the world needs these dialogues now more than ever.

College is much more than a step on the way to a stable career. While this would be a welcomed side effect, the real reason we spend four years of our lives attending a liberal arts university is to learn how to live in the world. It is in this education, the one that doesn’t show up on a LinkedIn profile but is easy to see in a person, that we really come here for. If coffee shops play a part in helping us get it, then colleges need coffee shops.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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