Only once in my 52 years on this planet have I been fortunate enough to live on Main Street, America. That would be my senior year at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, living in an apartment just off Minnesota Avenue. It didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen without forethought and planning.
Working as a bus driver for the St. Peter school district, coupled with a work study job and employment as a hall monitor, I was able to save enough money to pay my own room and board with only a few small loans from my folks. It was how they brought me up: Work hard, and take responsibility for yourself.
Recently, I learned that most juniors and seniors at Gustavus no longer have the option of living within the greater St. Peter community. Not until the dorms, townhomes, and apartments fill to near capacity and create a housing crunch will they have the choice to live independently.
They will not have the opportunity to become neighbors with residents of St. Peter and help them shovel their walks in the winter. They won’t meet with others living off-campus and enjoy shared meals around town. They won’t truly understand what a rental agreement is and they most likely won’t have any rental history when they graduate from Gustavus.
When I returned home after graduation, my folks had retired and sold our 4 bedroom home in the suburbs and were living in a one bedroom condo in downtown Minneapolis. It was time to make use of my off campus “education” and hit the road.
Gustavus has identified 5 core values that are implicit to the goals of the institution. Justice is one of those: “‘Education for the common good’ is our objective, and integrity must be one of our defining characteristics.” Gustavians should be able to have access to the education that is inherent in securing and maintaining an off-campus living environment and the life skills that accompany it. For some this will prove invaluable.
We all can agree that we enjoy a good tater-tot hot dish now and then. If a student bakes those tots in a townhouse on the Gustavus campus, it’s going to cost them over $900 a month to do it. That student can serve those tots in a house down the hill that costs about $250-$300 a month. That’s a lot of tots and for some Gustavians the differential in cost between on and off campus living might prove to be the difference in later defaulting on a student loan.
My parents met in Rundstrom Hall and as a sophomore I lived there myself. I cherished my time on campus but after returning from a semester abroad I was ready to get some space. Many students will want to live on campus all four years and why not? It’s beautiful and close to all of the action.
However, some students, for whatever their reason, will gravitate towards a more independent lifestyle and prefer to live down the hill. Unfortunately, the learning that comes with it cannot be found on campus.
I wanted to get an idea of what other colleges are doing so I read the off-campus living policies of St. Olaf and Concordia. St. Olaf’s policies are very aligned with those of Gustavus, however, Concordia allows for off-campus living. The Concordia website states, “Living off campus is a great way to get used to living on your own – juggling the responsibilities of budgeting your housing, food and utility expenses, and relating to a landlord.” I hope that if it is not already doing so, that Gustavus continues to look at this issue and create a pathway for juniors and seniors to live in town.
My time at Gustavus was nothing short of amazing. I’ll never forget singing in Christ Chapel, mystery dates, awesome professors, the Campus Activities Board, driving the shuttle bus, intramural sports, watching athletic teams, Rundstrom Hall and of course the three semesters I spent living with my friends in St. Peter.
Let us not build walls but work together to break down barriers including the invisible ones that prevent Gustavians from having a turn to live on Main Street, USA. I’ll always remember my days just off Minnesota Avenue and the sound of my future wife’s voice coming up the stairs of my second floor apartment: “Hi honey, what’s for supper?”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Westrum is a 1988 graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College.