Bowdoin College prides itself on its connection to community. Visit our website and you’ll see countless references to Brunswick and to Maine, touting the College’s close relationship with its Midcoast host and the state it sits in. “Maine and our hometown of Brunswick are fundamental to our identity,” reads the beginning of one page, marked in bold. Confronted with this assertion, pictures from the lobster bake and mentions of Brunswick’s vibrant downtown, it seems hard not to feel that Bowdoin is intimately linked to the communities which surround it.
I agree that Bowdoin and Maine have close ties. Yet the more time that I’ve spent here, the less I have come to believe that such links are reciprocal or that they are truly as meaningful as they are portrayed to be. Despite numerous efforts by groups such as the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good and various other clubs on campus to connect with our community, it is entirely possible for a Bowdoin student, nestled in the comfort of the Bowdoin Bubble, to avoid any sort of real connection with the outside world (no, runs to Frosty’s or trips to Sugarloaf don’t count). Academically, unless you are a student of the natural sciences or environmental studies, very few classes ever venture beyond the boundaries of campus and what few excursions may occur are cursory at best.
The isolation of Bowdoin students from the rest of Maine is problematic, particularly in its similarity to the socioeconomic gulf between wealthy visitors to Maine and their local neighbors. In his book “The Lobster Coast,” Maine journalist Colin Woodard writes extensively about Maine’s history of summer colonies and how wealthy people from away have impacted the social landscape. “There was—and in many places still is—an imperial dynamic in the relationship between Mainers and summer people,” he argues. “The latter, after all, lived in ‘colonies,’ surrounded by and dependent on the labor of ‘the natives.’ They were generally wealthier [and] more educated … [and] spoke, dressed and behaved differently than the locals and, while in Maine, generally socialized among themselves.”
While we’re not necessarily living in a colony, there are some important parallels with the situation that Woodard describes. Roughly 54 percent of Bowdoin students pay full price to attend this school, a cost that, at around $68,620 per year, far exceeds Maine’s 2017 median household income of $53,024. To maintain the comforts of fine dining and clean housing and grounds, we employ locals at wages that often aren’t enough to get by on. And if the moniker Camp BoBo has any truth to it, we certainly don’t tend to interact with people beyond the boundaries of campus. Though Bowdoin students spend four years in Maine, our campus’s wealth and exclusion from the outside world makes us look more like summer people than year-round residents. Considering that many of us are drawn in by promises of lobster and breathtaking views of the ocean, this is not a surprising resemblance.
In order for Bowdoin to address this divide, it must first work more space for the study of Maine into its curriculum. Currently, very few courses that focus on Maine are available—only two are being offered this semester, for example. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Numerous departments, from Francophone Studies to Biology, have both the right focus and the right tools to study Maine. Whether in the natural sciences, the social sciences or the humanities, there should be a concerted effort to broaden Maine’s place in Bowdoin’s academic life. If possible, if it would encourage the student body to engage in such study, I believe that a “Maine” distribution requirement would also be an effective way to expose more students to the environmental and social realities of our state.
Bowdoin must also find a better way to promote student engagement with Maine outside of class. Though things like Common Good Day, Alternative Spring Break and Community Immersion Orientation Trips through the McKeen Center are good ways to learn about our state, they can easily be avoided. Community service is an effective means of education and would most definitely complement an enhanced curriculum if it were a required part of the Bowdoin experience.
Finally, Bowdoin as an institution needs to rethink the ways it deals with its neighbors in Brunswick and the Mainers with whom it shares its home. While it is easy to be dismissive of our housekeepers, groundskeepers and dining workers, we must give greater recognition to them and to the many other locals who keep the College running every day. By instituting a living wage and cultivating respect for our staff, we can work to break down some of the imbalances that plague our school, and with them, the walls that separate us from the outside.
If Bowdoin wants to live up to its claim of connection with community, and if it really hopes to make its students “at home in all lands,” as the Offer of the College promises, it must reexamine the relationship it has cultivated with the land that it occupies. If we are to truly recognize Maine, as our website claims, as a fundamental part of our identity, significant change is in order. Only through education, community service and greater respect for our employees can we begin to work toward bridging the divide between Maine and Bowdoin—and ultimately toward creating a more meaningful experience for all.