Exploring Community in Geneva – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Exploring Community in Geneva

After refining their qualitative research abilities throughout the semester, students in “Qualitative Methods and Community” employed their interview skills to explore the meaning of “community” in Geneva. Through the process, students developed a collaborative spirit and collective pride in the City and gained a greater sense of place as they reflected on their role as an HWS student and an integral community member.

“One of the main motivations for making the final project about community in Geneva was to break down the dichotomy between HWS and Geneva that students think or feel exists,” says Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Robin Lewis, who teaches the course. “The project asked them to go outside the campus and engage with the community on a different level, and through this they found that much of the community doesn’t feel there’s a divide.”

The final assignment for the environmental studies course tasked students with conducting at least two interviews with community leaders, business owners or community activists. In pairs or small groups, the students created their own research questions to investigate how residents define community.

“A lot of the people we worked with are active members of the community who are trying to make this place better for everyone, so it gave them a chance to sit down and reflect on what they’ve done and where they’re headed,” explains Lewis.

After collecting data, students began processing their results to find common themes and perceptions on what community means. The final task was to compile their findings into their fourth final qualitative research report of the semester. Lewis will then compile a fact sheet for interested community members that summarize the students’ findings concerning the meaning of “community” in Geneva.

“The idea of community is really interesting and also really important,” says co-owner of Stomping Grounds James Haswell, who was one of more than a dozen community members interviewed. “We’ve thought a lot about what makes Geneva such a great fit for our store, and we’ve found that it’s the combination of history, appreciation for art, the focus on education, and the huge diversity that Geneva has, in everything from race to religion to income. It’s really makes Geneva a ‘mini America,’ and, if anything, makes the community of Geneva unique.” 

From the City’s rich history to working toward a common goal, to issues of race, class and poverty, the students’ interviews generated a diverse sampling of ideas. Natalie Bishop ’18 and Sarah Kloos ’18 found collaboration to be the recurring theme in their interviews, noting that the community members they spoke with highlighted “coming together and creating something new in the community.”

“We asked them what their favorite spot in Geneva was, and they all chose a community hub point, like the Smith Opera House or the lakefront – places where the community comes together to create or do something with others,” says Bishop.

Alex Cirra ’17, Colin Theran ’17 and Alex Vitulano ’16 interviewed three community members representing different classes, social backgrounds and ages, and found that all three mentioned issues of race, poverty and class in Geneva.

“Even though they pointed out some flaws, they all seemed to have a positive outlook that there is change happening in the Geneva community for the better,” Vitulano says. “I had a lot of preconceptions of Geneva and what the community would think the main issues are – especially that there was a divide between HWS and the town – but I was definitely wrong.”    

Cirra notes that the project helped her rethink her perception of Geneva, while giving her the opportunity to interact with community members in a new way.

“It was nice to be able to get to ask community members meaningful questions – topics like race and poverty aren’t topics that really come up in casual conversation,” she says. “It gave us an opportunity to connect with people in the community that we already know, but also to realize the bigger issues that we might not have thought about before.”

Lewis says that while the project gave her students the valuable opportunity to apply the research methods they’ve practiced throughout the semester to a project that benefits the community, her ultimate goal was to help students realize that “they all have a place in the community, and they all have the skills that can give back and make a meaningful difference.”

For many students, the project did just that, leaving them feeling like a more valued and integrated member of Geneva, while providing a heightened sense of why being active in the community is vital to the success of any city.

“I feel much more involved after just going and talking to people,” Bishop says. “It’s pushed me to go to places where I haven’t visited, so I now understand different places around the community. But geography is only one aspect of community; it’s more about the relationships between the people.”

“I think something that everyone needs to remember is that we all want Geneva to be a great place,” says Haswell. “We may disagree about exactly how we get there, but if we can remind each other that we’re on the same team then we can collaborate to continue making positive changes in Geneva.”

Above (from top to bottom), Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Robin Lewis and students from her “Qualitative Methods and Community” course meet with Co-Owner of Stomping Grounds James Haswell in his store. Lewis poses with students from her class on Seneca Street with downtown Geneva in the background. During class in Demarest Hall, students discuss the data collected from their interviews with community members.