Small colleges in small towns "rock"

(01-09-2008)

Opinion by Dr. David Svaldi, president of Adams State College

As the president of a small, rural four-year college, I find myself required to travel to Denver way too often. Although I enjoy interacting with my colleagues, state legislators, and other officials, I sometimes feel patronized, perhaps because I am from a small town or perhaps because the college I head is tiny.

"How are things in the ice box?" they joke. "You have such a cute little college-how's your enrollment?"

If I have been unlucky enough to have been stuck in traffic on Interstate 25 during my trip, I am tempted to respond: how can you live with wasted hours commuting, road rage, wasting even more time in line at the packed shopping mall, paying $5 for 25 cents worth of coffee? And, really, how often do the traffic challenges of Denver deter you from taking advantage of the many cultural opportunities?

Once, in a conference-call meeting, the group on the other end of the line laughed derisively when they heard the train steam whistle through my office window. Indeed, the city mouse has always felt superior to their country cousin, and often urban folk make fun of the increasingly rare rural lifestyle. How can one live without a shopping mall, Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, a symphony orchestra, and other opportunities for sophisticated, enlightened urban culture?

But many of us find the quality of life in rural Colorado is inversely proportional to the quantity of our population. The crime rate is low in our community: many of us seldom lock our doors, and you can send your kid to the swimming pool by themselves without worry. Our definition of a traffic jam is waiting two minutes on First Street in the middle of our campus. Even people with longer commutes have it relatively smooth: 20 miles in 25 minutes between neighboring towns.

In the summer we have free music in the park and easy access to the mountains and wide open spaces. The conclusion of long weekends finds streams of Denverites returning to the city from our idyllic countryside. The relatively low cost of living here attracts a substantial artistic community, and a variety of local bands and Mariachi groups bring joy to all of us. We also enjoy inexpensive performances in intimate venues by groups like the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and David Taylor Dance Theatre.

There are churches in every San Luis Valley community and neighborhood, and our children have a higher percentage of two-parent families than those in urban areas. You can purchase a nice home for less than $150,000 and buy anything you need in our picturesque downtown. You can even get a cup of coffee for less than $5!

Yes, my college of 2,500 students is tiny compared to behemoths like Ohio State and Penn State, or even CSU and CU. But visitors to our campus from two different accrediting organizations have noted the strong sense of community present on our "tiny" campus. Larger institutions are spending millions of dollars to recreate a sense of a small community within their campuses. On our campus, it's free - and genuine.

I can only echo the sentiment of John Mellencamp's song "Small Town:"

"No I cannot forget where it is that I come from,
I cannot forget the people who love me.
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be."