Places/Spaces

This past week, Hamilton College celebrated its bicentennial with a weeklong, all-alumni reunion event. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go to school in Clinton, NY when Hamilton first received its charter from the New York Board of Regents, especially because I wouldn’t have been allowed to attend. But even more importantly, I can’t imagine having gone to school anywhere else when it came time for me to select a school. Two years into my higher educational career, Hamilton is no longer just a space where I study; it’s a place I call “home.”

Below is an entry I wrote for the College’s Admission blog about the distinction between places and spaces, based on my experience at Hamilton:

February 21, 2012

I’m reading Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places, an ethnography of Western Apache language, for my Anthropology course right now. The book beautifully describes Apache naming practices, by way of which the Apache people transform spaces into places.

A place, as opposed to a space, suggests deeper meaning—personal significance and emotional attachment. The distinction got me thinking about when I first came to Hamilton. It was the summer of 2009, and I was making my final college visits. The Hill was just a space at the time—Hamilton College, not Hammy, not HamTech, not My Hamilton.

But after that visit, Hamilton began to establish its status as a place. The school made a big impression upon me, and I decided to apply Early Decision I. A person’s top-choice school defines him or her in high school, or at least so was the case at my own. Most colleges attract a certain type, or types; Big Ten schools appeal to superfans, southern universities are preppy, etc. Liberal arts colleges, too, attract a specific kind of student, but it’s harder to express exactly what kind of student that is. For all its ambiguity, I always knew a liberal arts education was the route I was going to take.

A few weeks before I sent my application to Siuda House, my dad, brother and I participated in Bike MS NYC. We had been biking in the race annually as a group for years, and since I would be at college—somewhere—the following fall, it was our last Bike MS as a group.

Because the race takes place in October, we usually had to dress in layers. Under a windbreaker and fleece, my brother, Sean, was sporting a Hamilton t-shirt. As the day progressed, and the sun came out, the t-shirt did, too.

Now, it’s not unusual that people make small talk during the ride. When you’re on a 60- or 100-mile route through New York and New Jersey, there are challenging points, as well as stretches of flat terrain for cruising and chatting. On one of the flatter portions of the route, an older man seemed distracted by Sean’s t-shirt. He greeted us and shared that he was an alumnus. I had never run into a Hamilton graduate before and didn’t expect that it would happen so candidly. He wasn’t sure what Hamilton was like anymore, but when he had gone there, it was a “nice place” to go to college.

In the second chapter of his book, Basso explains the Apache belief that places remain with people, even after they have left them. Hamilton took on this quality of place-ness before I was even accepted to the Class of 2014. And once I was a student on the Hill, I began to partake in naming practices similar to those of the Western Apache as I adopted Hamilton slang into my lexicon. Someday, you’ll be taking classes in KJ or eating Diner B with friends. Someday, I hope, Hamilton will be a place for you.

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