Are We Kind to Strangers?

Does your campus leave the welcome mat out all year -- or just on red-letter days? Take a good look around, Maria Shine Stewart advises.

June 28, 2013

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs proposes that a degree of safety and comfort is required before we can reach lofty heights of contemplation or self-expression. Most colleges grasp this concept clearly on new student recruiting days or parents’ weekend, when a collective aura of welcome reigns. And of course, everything is as close to perfect as possible on alumni nights or commencement.

But what about at other times?

Does your college offer a true helping hand to the transient student, the transfer student, the visitor, the simply curious… in other words, the person not arriving at the “right” time? It’s understandable that campus leaders delegate functions at the base of the hierarchy … but I wonder what might happen if once a month a newbie of some type could report just what first-night parking was like, if the vending machines were working, if anyone offered to help when she/he was lost…and I’m sorry to even have to raise the topic: if the restrooms were a place of rest.

Being a newbie anywhere expands one’s horizons but also can lead to a degree of anxiety. I concur with creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s view that flow or a sense of absorption may be at the opposite points of a circle, a fact of life. I have been out of my comfort zone a few times this academic year, interning at several sites while teaching, and attending conferences. With curious eyes and pounding heart, I have re-encountered how it feels to be a stranger.

This column is a reminder to be kinder to the visitor or newbie on your campus. He or she might benefit from a helping hand or gesture of genuine kindness. Don’t assume that everything is crystal clear; your “home” might seem that way to you because it is so familiar. “Paying it forward” is more likely if the stranger has felt welcomed.

A bookstore buddy

As a transient student for summer, one of the kindest moments thus far was in the bookstore. Though I had attempted to purchase my textbook online, there was a snag, so I decided to shop the old way. I was greeted and told politely my bag needed to go in a locker; this was not done with a warden’s scold. The greeter had a quarter ready to lend me for the locker. I was then directed to a desk where I could ask about my text and then another human walked me to the aisle where the books were shelved. This may sound simple, but at the end of a tiring day and shaky from a parking garage adventure, I felt bolstered by courtesy.


I do deep breathing and mindfulness exercises, but apparently much of the world does not. I was almost been struck by cars in parking garages and at an intersection this year as a pedestrian. Any parking garage gets its share of drama in action movies, but I don’t like this adrenaline surge in real life. One night the visitors’ lot ticket machine was misbehaving as a whole line of students like me were waiting to use it, ostensibly to avoid parking fees connected with regular student status. One student spoke to me excitedly, fearing she would be ticketed; her choice was to get to class on time or wait to see if the machine came back to its senses. Whenever I encounter such a scene I wonder if students or visitors should be subjected to a relay race or be so harshly penalized for simply being there.

Vying with vending machines

A humble vending machine fulfills a noble purpose, especially when no full-service cafeteria or snack bar is open. Higher-level decisions such as healthier or less healthy food options aside, do the decision makers on your campus make sure that your vending machine has a clear “complaint resolution” follow-up? Few of us have money to literally throw away these days, and the option of using a credit card or some mysterious card given only to the initiated, is great: but if these don’t work either, one is indeed stuck. If diabetic or running the whole day on “empty,” one may not feel like sprinting around campus, especially at night.

Be kind to the imperfect

I am not a psychic: If I knew in advance how long it would take, I would have started much earlier. I was late for the first night of class as a transient student despite my best efforts. The class had already broken into groups and a kind student “let me in,” sharing a summary of the task they had been assigned. Thus I did not feel like an interloper for long. The professor’s reminders to be on time were firm but kind.

Purge classrooms of broken chairs

Shouldn’t that be obvious? Teacher, student and visitor alike should not have to brace themselves when sitting down. Through harsh experience, I have learned to wiggle a chair first. Consider including some straight-backed chairs in swivel-ville and anything logical as an alternative for body-twisting desk-chair combos.

Lost keys, flash drives, purses…

Make sure that visitors to campus know the number to security and where security is located. This should not be a secret, and “it’s on the website” is simply not fast enough. This year, I was fortunate that a lost flash drive was retrieved when it fell somewhere – and a purse left in one classroom while I was jetlagged was turned in. When a colleague likewise lost her purse as finals week approached, I could encourage her not to lose heart. Kinder campuses may provide happier endings to our human foibles but do make sure the path to communicating with helpers is clear.

Elevator alternatives

Ever since I was punched in the face in a department store elevator while going to meet my mom at work and, years later, got stuck in an elevator while pregnant, I have been aware of perils intrinsic to this magical medium that defies time and space. If you want to encourage people to use stairs on campus, make sure that stairwells are well-lit. If snow blows into outdoor parking garage stairwells, make sure a staffer sweeps it away.

No rest in the restroom?

I was in a stall as a desperate male walked into the women’s restroom proclaiming: “they’re out of tissue, they’re out of tissue.” This could happen anywhere, I suppose, but it had never happened to me. I called upon my viewing of action flicks to plan my hypervigilant exit strategy. Everything was O.K.; this was not a ruse. Keep restrooms well-stocked and, yes, clean.

What made you feel welcome (or unwelcome) on campus? Chime in.


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