Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Is there life beyond the laptops?


That's how the singer in a university band described the students who went out and took part in the Buenafication Day events around town the other day.

The alternative to this rather strong-armed approach to community volunteerism, no doubt, would have been to vegetate, hiding in the cramped dorm rooms, squinting at those laptop computers that seem to now grow out of the students' fingers - or to hit the bars a little earlier.

The only bad thing I see about Buenafication Day is that it is just a day, instead of an attitude. Aside from a handful of exceptional students who find their own way to help out at local schools, Habitat for Humanity, or get involved at Santa's Castle or other programs, most never know too much of the community in which they live.

According to statistics, about 44 percent of them know the bars on an extreme and intimate basis. They will know the way to Wal-Mart, McDonald's, the theater and a few other retail locations. Some will get outside and enjoy the LakeTrail recreation corridor.

I'd really have to wonder how many would know the name of the mayor of their city. How many know any of the neighbors who live within a block of them? How many have visited the art gallery? A town celebration? A school sports event? How many know a local minister?

It's an issue in any college town in any era. The students represent great vitality and energy, new ideas, a great many hands that could teach, learn, share, build - if someone could engage them. That doesn't happen when the parking lot empties out every weekend. I suspect that Storm Lake could do a better job involving the young people as more than consumers, and they could do better in being a part of their community. It is more than a transient place to spend four years.

I'm often shocked at the lack of participation, even when efforts are made to bring good events right into the laps of the students. There was a Fiesta Latino last weekend with a fun live band from the community, lots of ethnic foods, games and more - right beside a residence hall. Very few bothered to come outside, and many walked right by without paying any attention.

Even at the Buenafication Day wrap-up, right in their own Forum, with three live bands performing with no admission charge, there were only a couple dozen students to make an "audience." Some sat it out at tables, tickling their keyboards instead of watching the performers.

The ACES events, which require the students to attend cultural events to earn points toward graduation, bring in some incredible speakers, acts and arts programs to BVU. I've seen students sit in the audience, tapping away at their laptops. Wonder what the performers who travel so far think of that behavior? It's unfortunate that cultural enjoyment has to be mandated, and still, some don't manage to get it.

A couple of years ago, BVU became the first campus in the nation to be entirely wireless, providing every student with a laptop computer. This breakthrough was marketed widely, and has helped to form the image of a cutting-edge university. Students can virtually live a virtual life from the comforts of a residence hall room.

You can't fight progress, but I have to think that this technological evolution comes with a price as well. On a nice sunny day, there are few students outside, even less now that some are are pouting over losing their right to play tennis ball golf. Live music goes attended, while they download computer music files. The intimate Centennial Room is almost always vacant - conversation now takes place over MSN on the laptops.

Some of the students realize the social atrophy - there are posters up declaring an Internet-free week this month.

Interesting idea... I wonder how many of us addicts could give up our computers for a time now without wondering what in the world to do instead? Could we even communicate any more without e-mail, cell phones, pagers, voice mail?

Buenafication Day is a good thing, and I hope that the dotted line between town and gown will grow increasingly faint. The only "suckers" are those who sit outside the campus, never getting to know these young people, and the students who are content to spend four years punching laptop keyboards, and calling that a life.