Bursting the fear bubble: College students receive mixed messages about the city beyond the borders of their campus

Students often get a contradictory picture about Baltimore beyond the borders of their campus

The stereotype of Johns Hopkins students who are afraid to venture away from campus is not without merit. I once went out to dinner with a friend, and when I pulled out some cash to pay my check, he told me he was impressed. Though he's a Ph.D. student from another major urban area, he said he'd been too nervous to carry cash since arriving in Baltimore.

He's not alone in feeling this way. Many students come to campus with preconceived notions of the city, and with all the negative attention on Baltimore in the media—many are quick to point to "The Wire," or, more recently, the national coverage of the Baltimore Uprising that often referred to the event as "the Baltimore riots"—colleges are forced to not only hard-sell students on their school, but also on the city. Yet when students are first provided with pretty photographs of the most tourist-y sites, before being bombarded with safety tips for the remainder of their undergraduate career, they're left with a confused, disjointed, and fear-tinged picture of our city.

For the second year now, Hopkins' new-student orientation will have a day dedicated to exploring Baltimore. This year's "Baltimore Day" included presentations on transportation and the importance of interacting with the city, small-group trips to some of Baltimore's most picturesque neighborhoods, a Baltimore-themed picnic complete with crab cakes and Utz chips, and TED-style talks about the city. Additionally, this year's summer reading book was "The Beautiful Struggle" by West Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates.

"The idea of all this is to get the students, from the beginning, out of the Johns Hopkins bubble and into places where they can learn to better understand the city that will be their home for four years. We want them to better appreciate the city's history and culture," reads a statement emailed to City Paper by Dennis O'Shea, the executive director for media relations at Hopkins.

But if these Baltimore Day activities are meant to subvert the standard perception of Baltimore, most students don't see the sentiment extend past orientation. Joshan Bajaj, a Hopkins sophomore from New Jersey, says that he enjoyed visiting Baltimore neighborhoods during Baltimore Day, in part because it showed him that it is safe to explore the city. However, he, like many who are new to Hopkins, admits that he spends most of his free time on campus, aside from a few trips to Inner Harbor.

"There's a big emphasis during orientation that 'oh, this is Charm City, it's a great place, there's so many cool things to explore,'" he says. "But also, I feel like that's something that's expressed during orientation, but not after that."

As the new fall semester kicks off, the most frequent communication that students receive about the city are security alerts about crimes on or near campus. One particularly memorable alert was emailed to the Hopkins community last September, describing an event where two intoxicated students walked through a McDonald's drive-thru, and were told that they couldn't be served while on foot. After refusing to leave, one of the students "engaged in a verbal dispute with three males in the vehicle behind them." Two of the men in the vehicle later physically assaulted the student and stole his phone.

The crime tip at the bottom of the email advises students to "not walk in unfamiliar areas away from campus, particularly during evening and early morning hours" and to "be aware of your surroundings and stay alert," followed by information on how to contact Campus Security so that "transportation can be arranged for your return to campus." There is no mention of traveling while intoxicated or refusing to leave a drive-thru while on foot.

"Irrational fears are going to increase when you see the security alerts," Dikshant Malla, a junior who grew up in Baltimore City, says. He notes that the contrast between the security alerts and the picturesque images of well-manicured homes and historic shops shown during orientation might be confusing for some, since many out-of-state students lack a real cultural or historical understanding of the city.

"People will just be like, 'Oh my god, what happened to those pretty houses? Those pretty houses are getting robbed now,' and it's not a question of wow, this is a systemic issue, these robberies are happening because people are poor," Malla continues. "Those [alerts] are necessary. It's just a question of how the university can handle it."

Though this isn't to say the university doesn't provide information about Baltimore.

"As a university, we're very aware of the importance of connecting our students to life in the city that is their home for four years, and we look for opportunities to make those connections," O'Shea writes.

They have even increased their efforts in recent years. Three years ago, when I was a freshman, I don't remember any required orientation activities about exploring Baltimore, and there certainly wasn't an all-day event with off-campus neighborhood trips. Outside of orientation, the Dean of Student Life Terry Martinez, who started working at Johns Hopkins in 2014, also introduced "HopArt" earlier this year, a program that raffles off free tickets to exhibits and shows in the city.

However, even with the additions, it's not uncommon to hear students be fearful or unwilling to leave campus—even walking the nine blocks south to the CVS on North Charles Street is often considered a feat of bravery.

"I think there are a lot of people at Hopkins who do, who truly do, have a misconception about what Baltimore is like," Malla says. "And I think it's not necessarily their fault that they don't have the available resources."

Similar problems exist at other Baltimore area colleges and universities as well. At MICA, undergraduate orientation includes two Baltimore-based events, All About Baltimore! and Baltimore Walking Tours, where current students discuss places to go in Baltimore, and "Baltimore Immersion Experiences," where students are taken to different Baltimore neighborhoods. MICA's Director of Student Activities Karol Martinez-Doane, who organizes orientation, believes that spending time in the Baltimore community benefits the students, especially given the DIY galleries.

"The art scene is really great and vibrant, and perfect for our students," she says. "We want to make sure that they embrace that and take full advantage."

MICA's Interim Director of Campus Security Randy Humes says he mostly emphasizes a "see something; say something" security approach during orientation and encourages students to safely "see the beautiful sights in Baltimore."

At Hopkins, what may be lacking is an office that facilitates interaction with Baltimore, and promotes programs like the Baltimore-themed trips and activities hosted during orientation. Off-campus events may be coordinated through the dean of students, Residential Life, or Student Activities, but there's no central coordinator.

Information about the city can be found online; an "About Baltimore" section is listed under the university's "Campus Life" menu on its home page, and links to Baltimore.org and the Baltimore Collegetown Network are provided on the orientation Web page. At the same time, those interested in exploring the city are often directed toward JHU's Center for Social Concern (CSC), which focuses on community service. Its more-comprehensive programs include the competitive Community Impact Internship Program, which offers paid service-focused summer internships, and the new application-only pre-orientation program "HopkinsCORPS," which focuses on providing students with a social and cultural understanding of Baltimore.

While this information may already be available, albeit with a bit of digging, students still seem hesitant to take the initiative to find these opportunities and services themselves.

"Initially you're just too scared, and you don't know what to do," Bajaj says of the fact that most of his freshmen classmates stayed on campus. "But as you stay there for longer you know how to react with a city that has its ups and downs." •

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