Discover Salem and leave the WU bubble
By Ryleigh Norgrove, Caitlin Forbes, and Kellen Bulger
Features Editor, Managing Editor, and News Editor
“Aye Derrick!” A customer at Big Derrick’s Barber Shop in downtown Salem yelped towards the owner.
“What’s up man?”
“You know that the Portland Timbers development team plays here in Salem?”
“No man, where do they play?” Derrick responded.
The customer preceded to take on a different tone. “I think maybe at Willamette or something … but we both know that they’re not getting us inbreeds over there though!”
Willamette University and the city of Salem go back historically far. Salem was founded in 1842, and just five years later in 1847 the now small, liberal arts school was established on State Street. In spite of the two having more than 150 years of history together, they have not always coexisted fantastically.
The aforementioned dialogue in Big Derrick’s Barber Shop is unfortunately not a stratified incident in the eyes of many. The University is often seen as a “liberal safe haven” with post-election protests on the campus receiving huge turnouts, emails from University President Steve Thorsett post-election reassuring Willamette students that they are safe on their campus and Willamette students making up a large number of young employees in the state capitol building — Willamette University students are far from shy when it comes to being outspoken politically.
While many see this as the status quo for higher education institutions in the 21st century, it is worth noting that Willamette in its geographic location and makeup is far from this status quo. Around the country you would be hard-pressed to find a private-liberal arts school, located in the downtown of a city with a substantial population and as homogenous in its political views as Willamette is.
“We kind of shame the Salem community even though they have given so much to us and there is a lot we can learn from it,” said first year Grace DeLee.
This ideological gap between the two entities has seen its ugly head reared as of late too with incidents like Salem resident and conservative talking-head Joey Nations posing as a student and defacing chalkboards on campus, with intentions of eliciting a response from the student body just before classes began this fall in late August.
This divide is often endearingly called, “The Willamette Bubble.” While this term is a colloquialism for the widening divide between the WU community and the city of Salem, it also represents the pervasive liberalism that coats this campus. While some may not view this as a bad thing, but others view the variation in our ideas to be negative. “Most people on this campus are outspokenly liberal, and you don’t see much debate of that and those ideas. While it’s nice to be in a place that is politically engaged, there isn’t much opposition to the liberalism at Willamette,” remarked first year, Liam Chambers.
This political majority found at WU is very different from that of the Salem community, and it’s worth noting that Marion County was won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election by five points. The Willamette student-body and its views are at odds with the population of the city in which it lies.
Tatiana Amiren, a life-long Salem resident (and born in the Salem hospital) recounted, “One of the things that upsets me the most is calling Salem ‘their community’ when Willamette students have a very limited knowledge of Salem. They base what they see in these few streets from the Willamette campus to Safeway to riverfront and all of their knowledge of Salem comes from that small area.”
This is another fault of the bubble; most WU students are unaware of the larger Salem community. It isn’t uncommon to see students hiking to Safeway on a sunny (or rainy) day, however very few students venture further into the Willamette community. “I grew up in southeast and northeast Salem and those are the poorest parts of Salem — you don’t see that in this Willamette Bubble,” said Amrein.
Although WU has some programs that allow students to interact with parts of the Salem community, such Tiger Club (the after-school reading program put on by volunteer WU students), and various internship or jobs provided from Willamette Academy, another educational opportunity for Willamette students, these mostly don’t require students to venture further out into the community, which further strengthens the illusion of the bubble. Amrein expands on her experience with Willamette and community involvement,
“The biggest outreach in my life experience that Willamette has done outside of its bubble is going to Bush Elementary across the street. Every year third through fifth graders come to campus, they get a tour, eat at Goudy for lunch and they go to Sparks and do activities with the athletes on campus. That’s the biggest outreach I’ve personally seen in my life. Willamette impacts that small group of children, but its a group of children living in poverty that most likely will not have the means to go to college, especially one as expensive as Willamette. They apply that to all of Salem, even though the rest of Salem is very different. It’s frustrating when Willamette students say ‘I’m so in touch with the Salem community’ because you neglect all the diversity of northeast and southeast Salem. Everyone is so inline with their own stream of thought so it’s hard for them to break away from them. I think participating in the Willamette Days of Service and trying to volunteer that’s good, but I think knowing your intentions behind that is very important. If you’re doing it just to pad your resume with nice organizations, why bother in the first place.”
Becoming involved within the Salem community means more than the occasional dinner at The Kitchen, or walking through the cherry blossom park. First-year Tara Hickman was very thoughtful, contemplating the line between being passively in the Salem community and being engaged.
“I think it’s very easy to stay on campus and forget there is a world outside of Willamette, even though we are in the middle of a city. Yeah you can go out for dinner, but actually engaging in the community is important. I think that that should be apart of the college experience, and I think Willamette could do a better job of doing that. We are learning things in class about people’s real life experience but to actually go out and experience them is something different. I think it’s better to approach your learning from a holistic point — yes we can read about it but we should also experience what we are reading about. It also just gives you a mental break, especially if you live on campus. It’s a really good thing to get yourself off campus and separate yourself from school, especially if when you see people studying all time, especially from a mental health standpoint.”
Amrein also addressed a similar problem she has found with many WU students, “You don’t know the Salem community, you know the Willamette community. It’s the privilege of this campus to say ‘I know the Salem community’ when really all you know is the Willamette community — and that’s the bubble.”
Break the bubble, try to venture past the Book Bin, past Riverfront park. Go on an adventure and experience something outside of your normal routine. As first-year Bella Medina says, it could be enriching. “I work in the CSL office, and so I definitely feel like when students get off campus and get involved in the Salem Community it makes them more aware of the various social justice issues occuring in the immediate Salem area.”
The Willamette bubble masks integral aspects of the Salem community, the city is houses many minority groups, and lower income families. “All of the schools I went to were majority minority students, most of my peers and people I grew up with were hispanic. When Willamette Students talk about the ‘Salem Community’ they see the white parts of Salem and they completely neglect any minority communities in Salem because they don’t have that knowledge,” said Amrein.
The economic divide between the Willamette campus and the community of Salem is also associated with the bubble. Hick-man added to this point, stating,“Because we are at a small liberal arts college a lot of us have similar backgrounds, because we can all f o r the most p a r t afford to come here, and we often forget that other parts of Salem are lower income.”
The economic divide is continued by the high cost of attending Willamette University. “It pains me alot, my opportunity to go here, while they aren’t even going to college. So they don’t know much about Willamette because they can’t go to college, they can’t afford it,” said Amrein.
“So I come from the poor parts of Salem, while I haven’t been in poverty my entire life, all of my peers and classmates were very much in poverty and I saw them grow up in comparison to how I grew up. Between Salem and Willamette, a lot of those people on those parts of town don’t even know of Willamette and its a block long campus in the middle of downtown, and downtown is technically the shopping district. If the can afford it, they go to the community college, Chemeketa Community College. I think it’s great they are getting an education, but its still they don’t have the opportunity to get one at Willamette so they don’t know about it. I even had teachers in highschool when I told them that I was going to Willamette they said ‘is that the school downtown or is it somewhere else?’” Even if it’s hush and only heard in nominal conversations in barber shops, Willamette’s tension with the city of Salem is representative of every issue the United States is currently facing. With novels like “Hillbilly Elegy” skyrocketing to the top of the New York Times bestseller list last fall, describing the growing divide between rural, urban, young and old values all clashing, we don’t need to look any further then our own backyard.
So what do we do? How do we bridge this ever growing divide? Drive down Commercial Street a couple of miles and you’ll see billboards with the conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh’s face plastered exclaiming “Salem is Listening!” Driving down the same street you’ll also see what many consider as liberal reformation in recreational marijuana dispensaries a plenty. This divide is seemingly on public display. 56 Willamette students were surveyed and asked two simple questions, the first of which being, “Do you like Salem?” The second of which being, “How often have you gone to an event or done something fun off campus in Salem during this semester?” The results might surprise you. 72 percent of undergraduate students who were surveyed said they either “like Salem” or they “love Salem.” Even more surprising, eighty-three percent of undergraduate students said that they have been to an event within the city of Salem this semester “A few times (two to four times)” or “A lot (five or more times)”.
While it would be foolhardy to take too much from a simple survey of less than a 10th of the undergraduate population of a university, these results are at the very least noteworthy. While plenty of signs point to the fact that there is a great divide between the school and the city, the undergraduate population feels well … different.
With the University being as prestigious as it is, and requiring what could be described only as a litany of required classes to fulfill their mission of a “liberal arts education” it’s quite incredible that nearly nine out of ten students made an effort to integrate themselves in events held by and attended by the same citizens who overwhelmingly voted to elect Donald J. Trump the president of their country.
This disconnect is endearingly nicknamed the “Willamette Bubble,” and though it is representative of the political disconnect between Salem and Willamette, some students see it as a positive thing. “I also think it’s good, we are in an environment focused on learning, so it is a good thing we have this bubble to focus on this to do our best to succeed in school,” said Medina.
So while the Willamette bubble is pervasive, first year Emma Donoho noted,“It can be a good thing when you are actually here to learn and not argue about moral differences, but it’s definitely something you should keep in mind while your here and be aware of how different it is.”
An interview with Associated Students of Willamette University’s (ASWU) Vice President and now resident of Salem Joseph Landoni gave credence to this notion that Willamette students are eager to close this divide more than most realize.
“If you take the time to attend community events and go out and make an attempt to get to know community members, you are going to feel more in tune with Salem.” Landoni went on to further assert, “I feel that Salem is truly the place to be … the fact I come from a super small town, it provides everything I need for a vibrant academic, social, and healthy community.”
If you are someone who wants to venture outside of the bubble, there are some Willamette activities that you can become involved in to become more engaged within the Sa-lem community. First-year Emma Jo Donoho recommends students become more in touch with the Community of Service Learning (CSL) organization. “I think there is a subgroup of Willamette Students who do a good job of reaching out, going off campus, doing CSL trips and community service who learn things. There is also a bigger group of students who don’t do that. We need to bring more of that onto campus.”