Thinking outside the library walls

The Town And Gown relationship has provided much fodder for bad romance novels, raunchy teen comedies and “This American Life” segments. But the tension is real. Colleges and universities do often exist in bubbles of their own making in the towns in which they reside. Student-centered businesses crop up around campuses, buses take students exactly to where they need to go and town residents more often than not think of campuses as “off limits.” Academic institutions sometimes act like messy guests who leave towels on the floor and drink the last of your milk rather than contributing members of the community. Myriad programs exist to work on this issue. My job is one example.

I am charged with providing outreach not just to the academic community, but also to the community in which our college lives. Every Friday night during the school year I run Family Fun Night: a free, drop in program for families from 6:00-7:3opm. I work with student organizations, community organizations and professional presenters to provide interactive themed activities (Dino-Nite! Mad Science Lab! Dance-stravaganza!). My colleague who established the program began by doing a few a semester and it’s grown to a weekly event that keeps threatening to outgrow our library space. What do we do and how do we do it?

  • Many of our honor societies and Greek letter societies must perform community service. I recruit them to put on performances or lead kids through hands on activities. An incredibly popular night is when our Chemistry Club does (safe) experiments like lighting dollar bills on fire or freezing roses. I had to turn people away from this one! I put a fun name- Mad Science Lab or Crazy Chemistry- on it to attract our audience. The environmental club helps kids use old items like Pringles chip cans and soda bottles to make art. The dance department taught dance lessons. What’s cool about this is that the college kids talk about what they learn and what they hope to do with their degrees during this. Kids in our community associate the college campus and library with FUN. They associate college with things like running lasers through Jell-O.
  • I’ve been given a budget that I can use to supplement when I don’t have enough students on campus to help me run programs. I use this to hire local folk singers, art teachers, storytellers, and zany scientists to put on a program. I contacted our local zoo who worked with my budget to present. Many folks will work with your budget because it’s a chance for them to advertise to birthday party-giving adults. I let performers put cards out and many have gotten further gigs from our night.
  • I plan programs and work with student groups and library student staff to put them on. This can be an easy sell if done right. The week before the first Harry Potter Deathly Hollows movie premiered we turned the entire library into Hogwarts. I sent out an email to student groups asking for volunteers to play characters and help set up and tear down. In particular I targeted the Theatre department. I also asked the Chemistry Club to lead “Potions Class” by helping kids do hands-on safe experiments which they helpfully slapped fun names like “Freezing Potion” on. I’ve also created programs I only need 2-3 students to help with. I am fortunate that my supervisors support paying students for two hours to help me run these.  I ran “Winter Wonderland” during which four of us each ran a station with a craft or game teaching kids about how different cultures celebrate during the winter season.

I run around 36 programs a year on a small budget that mainly goes to pay presenters for when students are not available. I purchased a core collection of supplies like scissors, glue, crayons, markers, and construction paper. I am a big believer in making magic out of paper and tape. For our Harry Potter night, Hogwarts-obsessed art students helped make the decorations. Not every academic institution is going to have students who can do this kind of work. I’ve learned it never hurts to ask. For example, the Theatre department lent a few costumes to supplement wizard wardrobes.

Family Fun Night is a great way to do outreach to students, faculty and the community alike. I approach faculty asking what kinds of projects their students are working on that could translate to hosting a Family Fun Night. This is especially great for Education and Physical Education departments, but I’m continually thrilled at how the Math and Physics departments have responded (we’re having a Pi Party in March, complete with pi-e eating contest and making jewelry with number beads- how many numbers of pi can you put on a bracelet?). It’s a chance to put into practice what students are learning and many faculty realize its value.

We promote Family Fun Night with newspaper ads, but find increasingly that Facebook and Twitter are excellent ways to engage participants throughout the week and build anticipation. We also collect email addresses and send out a weekly newsletter sharing the week’s theme and upcoming events. We have an Adult Education program and I try to promote Family Fun Night to this population as much as possible. It’s great to see adult students bringing their kids/nieces/nephews/friend’s kid to have fun where they go to school.  I also work with Education professors who run student teacher experiences to get the word out to local teachers. I send flyers to Montessori and preschools, put them up in kid-friendly businesses, send them to Birth to Three and other family-oriented services. I have reached out to various home school groups who have responded positively to educational fun.

I do most of my Family Fun Night planning over summer, tweaking and filling holes over winter break. It’s taken six years to develop the program, thanks to my predecessor’s work. You don’t have to start out running a program each week. At an old job I established First Friday Family Fun Night and people quickly got used to the regular time.

Some weeks I get 26 people, other times I have to turn folks away for fear of breaking fire code. Next on my agenda is to partner with local organizations who serve populations we don’t see at Family Fun Night. Many are open to the idea of organizing a caravan at their location so that families can follow each other to Family Fun Night. Many Adult Education students told me they wanted to attend the program before they were students but didn’t know where to park or go once they got to campus. My hope is that a caravan will help alleviate fears of looking stupid or feeling out-of-place. Once people figure out where to park and go, they come back. And we work really hard to make them feel welcome.

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