By Charlotte Hough ’14
Friendships, clubs, teams and service trump cliques and isolation — but real bonding takes more than just hanging out

Seventy-five percent of Hamilton seniors say they feel a strong sense of community on the Hill. While that’s a substantial percentage, as one senior points out, “You can’t expect 1,800 people to all be ridiculously close to one another.”

Yet it’s also a college where a Facebook page, Hamilton Compliments — a site where students post messages of thanks, tributes, friendship and solidarity — drew more than 500 “likes” in its first day of existence last fall and nearly 1,300 in its first five weeks, despite the distractions of Thanksgiving break and finals week. As the site’s message of community phrases it, tongue in cheek, “Being nice has never been so un-creepy before!”

Those two phenomena hint at the complexities — and the rewards — of building community on campus. Hamilton is a place where a reputation for openness and friendliness competes with claims that students are sometimes cliquish. It’s a hilltop neighborhood where more than 1,800 students can join more than 180 student organizations but may also lament an occasional sense of isolation. And it’s a college with a remarkable tradition of service and participation, but one also once known for “Hamilton Cool,” an aura of superiority or aloofness that some students of several generations have felt radiating from others.

Such contradictions are not limited to Hamilton, of course, and the vast majority of students see their four years on the Hill as a time of social growth and exploration — a time when both personal identities and lifetime relationships are forged. But outside the classroom, there are many paths to that sense of community — sports teams and clubs, performance groups, service and Greek organizations, even something as simple as a circle of friendship growing out of a residence hall assignment or a dining hall encounter.

What draws students to create such bonds? What does it mean to belong? And finally: Does the Hamilton community end up being just an aggregation of smaller groups, or does a common thread endure among all?

Bonds on and off the field

Connor Stevenson ’15 joined the rugby club as a first-year student. So did Kelsey Wise ’14, though a torn ligament forced her to switch to Ultimate Frisbee in her junior year. Both share a belief with legions of alumni who have gone before them: that sport has shaped their social experiences at Hamilton in a distinctive way.

“It’s very tight-knit, sort of by the nature of the sport,” Stevenson says of rugby. “You physically need the other people to hold you up at times. You’re putting your trust and safety and prolonged mental health into their hands, in a way. So that brings the team together in a very organic, cohesive manner.”

Wise feels similarly about her experiences with the many sports teams she’s been on in high school and at Hamilton — soccer when she was younger, then women’s rugby and now Ultimate Frisbee. “I really got to know these people in different ways than I get to know people in other settings, just because in practice we push through it together, we go through it all together, have the ups and downs of just playing that sport, winning and losing,” she says. “I feel like you really can grow with the team.”

Yet both have made an effort to expand their horizons beyond a circle of teammates — often using their involvement with a sport as a steppingstone to other social groups. Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, has found that such teams and organizations at the College can sometimes serve as “network brokers” — they connect people by acting as intermediaries, linking them with other individuals and organizations. In a forthcoming book, How College Works, written with Christopher Takacs ’01, now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, Chambliss quotes a student who regrets not taking advantage of such opportunities. “I wish I’d gotten involved in more things…. The community doesn’t really exist unless you go out and, like, become a part of it.”

For Stevenson, rugby has remained a social hub, but it has also introduced him to other networks. “Because the rugby team is involved with so many different things, it’s allowed me to … expand more easily, having an in to various groups,” he says. He was recruited to join Delta Kappa Epsilon by a fellow rugby player during his first year. Though he had never planned to join a fraternity, his mind was changed by his close friend and by the ease he felt when hanging out with DKE members.

Wise, meanwhile, has pushed herself to become involved elsewhere on campus, working with the student publication The Green Apple, with the Levitt Center’s English language tutoring program Project SHINE and with the new peer advisor program of Hamilton SAVES (Sexual Assault and Violence Education and Support). “You see people in a different way when you’re not on the field,” she says, “but you still have that kind of bond because you’ve spent so much time together.”

Making a cold call, teaching a waltz

Campus jobs, too, can provide an opportunity to bond with other students that one might not otherwise meet — and some jobs are more social than others. On the second floor of the Anderson-Connell Alumni Center, students participating in the Annual Fund phonathon gather in groups of eight to 10 to call alumni and ask for their support. Sirianna Santacrose ’15 describes it as a very warm environment. “The managers really encourage us to help each other out. I’ve been doing it since last year, so if freshmen were a little less experienced, were needing help with how to word something, we could go over and maybe help them,” she says. “I think it’s just a nice group dynamic.”

Santacrose has not yet formed any close friendships while working the phones, but it has helped her expand her circle in a way she values. “You make friends with people you might not have otherwise met, which is really nice,” she says. “I’ve definitely met some seniors that I wouldn’t have known through a class or whatever.”

Ramya Ramnath ’13 sees the process of forming strong social ties and growing from them as a gradual evolution. As a first-year student, she was initially helped to meet people and discover her interests through institutional programs like orientation. Along the way, Ramnath — a native of Mumbai, India — got involved in community service programs to learn more about the United States; she is now on the e-board for HAVOC, is a student director for Alternative Spring Break and is a senior fellow with COOP.

But she hasn’t been all business in her social activities; she’s also fed her passion for dance by participating in Tropical Sol, the Latin dance performance group, and the Ballroom Dance Club. “A lot of my closest friends on campus definitely came from Tropical Sol,” she says, “just because when you’re at practice, you’re kind of fooling around and everyone’s laughing and talking while dancing — and that’s just helping get to know people better.”

Dave Beauboeuf ’14 also cites the first-year experience as important to his social situation now, but in a different way; he met some of his closest friends when Residential Life placed them all in “dark side” residence halls his first year. It was with a few of these friends that he decided to join another of Hamilton’s fraternities, Delta Chi.

‘At its heart a very open place’

Ironically, that very sense of “dark side” belonging grew out of what was once the Hill’s deepest cultural divide: the decade-long coexistence of Hamilton and Kirkland colleges before their merger in 1978. It was a period of remarkable growth for the so-called coordinate colleges, but a period of turmoil as well. Women and men could take classes on both campus, and many did, but there was a culture gap between the colleges that likely kept some to their respective sides.

“Kirkland women tended to be more liberal politically … in a small number of cases, even radical,” recounted Susan Skerritt K’77 in her 2007 Class & Charter Day address. “However, there were also many Kirkland women — like me — who took classes and spent time on both sides of the road and enjoyed what each place offered.”

The vestiges of that divide are more symbolic than real for most current students, who have inherited the “light side/dark side” terminology but cross the old boundaries, literally and figuratively, on a daily basis. They live on a campus that reflects the conviction of Skerritt, now a charter trustee: “There is no question that the Hamilton of today is a marvelous meld of the Kirkland and Hamilton that I knew in the mid-’70s,” she told her Class & Charter Day listeners.

Sports, jobs and campus organizations and activities provide the initial social glue for many students by putting them in proximity with others and giving them a means of making connections. But a few students simply bring the party with them. One is Kyle Burnham ’15. “I’m kind of a social butterfly, so it’s hard to say if my activities have expanded my social connections, or if because of my social connections I’ve been able to expand my activities,” he says. “I feel like that’s really more how it goes — I’m just friendly to everybody.”

He admits that doing theatre at Hamilton may be an exception to this rule — here he has made new acquaintances — and that his leadership of, say, the Dinner Party Club can be a reason to talk to people at events like Open Mic Night. But for the most part, Burnham draws people he meets anywhere into his campus endeavors and personal orbit, as opposed to simply attending meetings that reflect his interests. And that sense of initiative in building connections offers lessons for others.

Burnham believes that Hamilton students are very open to helping each other in a way that members of any community would, even if they do not always make that obvious. While he sometimes observes a “superficial closed-ness” on campus, he says, “I feel like Hamilton at its heart is a very open place…. All the students here are so helpful and friendly and likable that even if you can’t find what you’re looking for in … the administration, you can turn to your RA or your next-door neighbor.

“It’s only when we forget that [the community] is open that it becomes closed.”

Groups within groups

A sense of belonging, of course, need not encompass the entire campus. As Chambliss and Takacs point out in How College Works, by the middle of the second year, “almost everyone identifiably belongs to particular informal and formal groups on campus — a gang of friends, a yearbook staff, an intramural softball team, a fraternity” — or, in more formal terms, “a stable and enjoyable peer group” that comprises only a fraction of the entire campus population.

“You just become more comfortable with your friends,” says José Vazquez ’15, president of his class and a student leader of the Outreach Adventure pre-orientation program for first-year students. “Which is fine, because everyone does.”

Ramnath agrees. “I think the Hamilton population in general is definitely broken up into smaller groups,” she says. “There’s a very intense sense of bond and community and friendship and support within those groups.” Ramnath observes that she probably identifies more strongly with COOP, of which she is a senior fellow, as well as with her work on the HAVOC Executive Board and Alternative Spring Break — all of which lead her to spend many waking hours at COOP’s home on the third floor of the Chapel — than with the campus at large. The work “always keeps me up there and keeps me very connected to other people who are up there, but not necessarily to people who are pretty much anywhere else,” Ramnath says.

“We’re a small college,” she says, “but we’re still 1,800 people here on the Hill. You can’t expect 1,800 people to all be ridiculously close to one another.”

Vazquez agrees that this intense identification with smaller social groups is natural, and speculates about another reason for it. “I feel like geographically we’re a big school for 1,800 students,” he says, referring to Hamilton’s 1,350-acre campus and suggesting that the physical space itself — usually regarded as a luxury — could sometimes contribute to a sense of emotional distance. “From the schools I’ve seen, this is a pretty spaced-out campus,” he says.

Still, Dean of Students Nancy Thompson believes, it’s worth noting that 75 percent of seniors leave with a strong sense of community. (The percentage comes from an annual survey of graduating seniors administered by Assistant Dean of Faculty for Institutional Research Gordon Hewitt.) “I think we can always do better,” Thompson says. “If a quarter of our population isn’t satisfied, that’s not insignificant.” But she adds that the College sees student life as an extension of the educational experience.

“Sometimes students would like us to hand them this platter of activities all prepared, and what we say is, ‘No, it’s up to you to create your social life at Hamilton. Here’s how you go about putting together a concert and arranging for all of the elements that need to be in place for that concert, or that meeting, or that film, or that game night.

“In every area of the Division [of Student Life], you can see that philosophy of teaching students to do the things that they want to do, as opposed to doing it for them. Again, it’s all about making sure students have the tools and resources they need to get as much as they possibly can from their four years at Hamilton.”

When is the circle closed?

What is to one student a deeply connected circle of friends and colleagues, of course, may be to another student — one outside the circle — a tight and overly exclusive group that devotes too much energy to maintaining its unique identity and keeping others out. A number of students interviewed for this feature said they believed Hamilton has a cliquish quality and that many of their classmates might agree with this evaluation. It’s not a new complaint. The College’s literary societies of the early 19th century formed bitter, often violent, rivalries, and the fraternities that followed honed the competition into an elaborate social hierarchy in which the elevation of one’s house on the Hill and its proximity to campus reflected its status.

It may not seem like rocket science to say that college students will bond and stick with those who share common interests, especially when those shared interests also involve group activities. In recent decades, popular culture has referenced the theme of cliquishness, from ’80s films like The Breakfast Club to the more modern Mean Girls, so much that cliques seem to have become normal, expected.

Yet there is also a distinction between closed, self-absorbed cliques and campus groups that provide tight but healthy social bonds. Chambliss and Takacs identify the former as “ingrown organizations” — ones that “limit a student’s connections with the broader institution.” Students like Ramnath, Wise and Santacrose, in contrast, see their solidarity with organizations and teammates as a kind of bridge to the larger campus culture. Perhaps Stevenson puts it best. “I would say I definitely identify more as a member of the rugby team,” he says. “But my guess is that part of that has to do with the fact that it’s the Hamilton rugby team, so it’s a subset” of the campus community.

Community behind the scenes

Students and administrators agree that a key part of growing socially during one’s Hamilton years is a willingness to move in and out of one’s comfort zone — choosing friends, activities and affiliations that reflect one’s interests, but also moving beyond that circle on occasion. “I do think this is a time to really test out new things, new ideas, to push yourself. I think in general that’s a really good thing to do,” Dean Thompson says. Vazquez agrees. “I think every respective person has to stay consistent with what they are used to,” he says. “But take dabbles in different things every once in a while — be more cognizant of different groups.”

That can be a challenge, though — especially at an academically rigorous liberal arts college where time for extracurricular activities must be allotted carefully. Stevenson, for instance, says that he tries to leave his comfort zone in what he chooses to do and with whom he hangs out, but that it’s not always possible. “Recently, due to school and other things that are out of my control, it’s been harder, certainly, to extend myself as much,” he says. “I like to, and I do, exit my comfort zone, but right now it’s less.” And Beauboeuf adds that even though there is a community on the Hill, “you’re just never in those situations” where it receives full expression, such as big sporting events that draw most of the campus as they might at a Division I college.

Still, a sense of community also can grow out of moments that are not planned or scheduled. Ramnath finds that simply eating at the same dining halls and studying in the same places as her peers on the Hill creates a sense of community. For Burnham, the campus seems to come together when certain “unifying” events — both positive and negative — occur. He points to the recent boom in Hamilton Compliments as one such event this year; a year ago, he saw the “event” as being a strong opinion article a student wrote for The Spectator that generated a heated community response. Many students objected to the piece — which claimed to defend men’s rights but seemed to many to vilify women’s — whether it was over a dinner conversation at Commons or in one of the many letters to the editor that the paper received.

Vazquez sees groups such as the Student Diversity Council and the Cultural Affairs Committee within the Student Assembly as institutions that help maintain Hamilton as a strong campus — “strong in the sense of community, where you know as a leader of an organization or of a club that you can always refer to one organization or another to help you out,” he says. “Community communicates.”

For Wise, a community is ultimately “a group of people all kind of going through the same thing together, sharing similar experiences together.” That, she says, can be a strong bond without being a dramatic one.

“Although I feel like the kind of experiences we have at Hamilton are varied, I feel like we’re all Hamilton students in the end and that we can all kind of relate to each other,” Wise says. “There’s something to be said when you can really recognize the faces of people, even if you don’t know their names.”

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