August 16, 2012 10:29:11 AM
Wednesday was the first day of classes at Mississippi University for Women, but unless your travels brought you in close proximity to the picturesque campus down on College Street, the event likely escaped your notice.
In downtown Columbus, only the blue and white "Welcome MUW'' banners adorning the street lights acknowledged the school's presence just a handful of blocks away. The shops and businesses downtown seemed to operate pretty much as it does on any other Wednesday.
This was not always the case.
Earlier generations of W students and Columbus residents will recall when the first day of classes took on a festive aura.
Downtown shops stayed open late to accommodate the arrival of "W'' students. Stores had sales to mark the occasion, handing out coupons and treats. Merchants sent letters to students before they even arrived in town, informing them of how they could open an account.
At Ruth's Department Store on the corner of Fifth and Main, each student was given a mug embossed with the store's name. By the time she had finished her education, The W student had her own collection of Ruth's mugs.
The community showed its affection for its students and, in return, the students made downtown a regular destination. In those days, students were required to live on campus and were not permitted to have cars on campus, so the co-eds walked the five or six blocks to reach downtown. It was a safe, accommodating place where students felt welcomed because, well, they were welcomed. In return, they infused downtown with their youth and vibrancy and charming optimism.
It is not that the city and MUW have become estranged, necessarily. Rather, they exist side-by-side with little interaction, like the neighbor you somehow never bothered to meet.
Only in times of crisis are those old bonds of affection remembered, it seems. It's like the neighbor who rings the doorbell with an empty cup and an introduction.
But it need not be that way.
Granted, it is a different era today. Students are both male and female now. They are more likely to be commuters than residents. They are more likely to be older -- average age of an MUW student last year was 26 -- and have other demands on their time and energy. They are wired, too. Some students rarely see campus at all, thanks to the emergence of online classes.
But even so, the MUW still occupies the same ground in the heart of the city that it always has.
Columbus and MUW are still far better together than they are apart.
It can be that way again.
It may never be as it was in the 1950s and the 1960s, but the relationship between the city and the school can be strengthened, to the benefit of both.
Maridith Geuder grew up in West Point. It was her mother's dream that she study piano at The W. Although she didn't fulfill that dream, she finds herself in a new role at MUW as the school's new executive director of university affairs. In that capacity, she will certainly recognize that MUW needs to raise its profile in the community.
The community also needs to embrace MUW, and not just in times of crisis.
These days, much is made of an institution's "economic impact'' on a community. While that is important, the value MUW gives to Columbus cannot be confined to a ledger. Economic impact is a measure of prosperity. Relationships are a measure of richness. One isn't of much enduring value without the other.
Columbus just wouldn't be Columbus without "The W,'' after all. Community leaders and business leaders and regular folks would do well to remember that.
So welcome back, students.
Seriously. We mean it.
Come see us.
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