PHILIADELPHIA — Friends delight in hearing of my return to college to complete the undergraduate degree I abandoned 26 years ago. When my fellow suburbanites ask, "What school?" and I respond "Temple University," some pause. Others nod and smile weakly. Some simply state their opinions. They acknowledge Temple's fine reputation, then question me about the danger they perceive exists on the main campus, located in North Philadelphia.
While I appreciate concern for my safety, this reaction saddens me. Scenes from North Philadelphia often fill the first five minutes of the local TV news. Reporters describe gunfire and sometimes murder, often drug-related. High crime rates create fear, a fear that rules perceptions about an entire section of the city, a fear that creates boundaries and limits horizons.
The hustle of bodies moving about Temple's main campus sharply contrasts with images of deadly activities in the neighborhood. Timothy Walsh, director of Student Information Systems, describes the "Temple experience" as "basically receiving an education from a major university that is culturally diverse."
Americans of many ethnicities and international students populate Temple's five local campuses. This mix of students offers an education beyond textbooks. Temple collegians gain insight into other cultures, races, religions, and even Philadelphia's neighborhoods, home to many of the school's commuters.
My own Temple experience includes friends like Mayur, a computer whiz of Indian descent, who was born in Africa. He patiently helped me find my way through cyberspace. Krisha, a former Temple security woman and Philadelphian, escorted me to my car one day. She now serves in the US Army. Keiko,a student who borrowed my class notes, offered her address in Japan and an invitation to visit her family. Two neighborhood children asked me to join them capturing lightning bugs one evening as they scampered across some grass.
I'm not the only one who thinks the campus is safe. Temple's Department of Campus Safety Services finds most requests received by campus police entail service rather than crime. The department offers numerous crime-prevention programs and works with members of the university and local communities. Student orientation includes lessons in street smarts. A free escort service and brightly lit walkways offer additional security at night.
Small gestures, a smile and wave from a parking-lot attendant, or the opening of a door for me by a student eased any initial apprehension I felt on campus. Everywhere I looked, I saw dedicated young people rushing from class to jobs.
Russell Conwell, the university's founder, taught night classes for seven students in 1884. When a charter was issued for the "The Temple College" in 1888, Mr. Conwell offered several hundred students an affordable education. Maintaining campus safety today is a priority in keeping this tradition alive.
When Conwell traveled as a reporter in the 1870s, he heard a legend in Mesopotamia that he often repeated in speeches. "Acres of Diamonds" is the tale of a farmer who sells his property and searches the world in vain for these precious stones. The new owner of the farmer's land discovers diamonds there in a garden. Conwell spoke of others, Americans who overlook jewels in their own backyards.
Suburbanites with misperceptions about Temple are like the farmer: They overlook a gem in their backyard. When they allow fear to limit travel to urban areas, they cheat themselves of opportunities for learning and growth.
*Marybeth T. Hagan is a journalism major at Temple U in Philadelphia.