Written by: Dominic Tartaglia
Each year our town undergoes a rather dramatic transformation during September. Not only do we get a change of seasons we get a change of pace as parents get settled in with their children starting classes again, harvest season arrives and college students move into our neighborhoods. It can be said that Autumn is the season of fullness; fullness with the bounty from orchards and gardens, fullness with our schedules as classes begin and vacations subside and fullness in our neighborhoods and streets as new students learn what it means to be a community member. Those students bring with them a harvest basket filled with benefits as well. Benefits that may sometimes be forgotten in the midst of popular town/gown issues of parties, housing and traffic that happen with any circumstance where you start mixing different cultures and demographics together. Since the conversation usually revolves around the perceived nuisance of student life in our community and the dialog rarely changes I would like to highlight those benefits that our student population brings to our Downtown and surrounding community.
The most obvious benefit that San Luis Obispo receives is a massive economic benefit to having two colleges in town. Both Cal Poly and Cuesta have a significant impact on our Downtown economy in terms of the consumer force of students, faculty and staff as well as their parents and guests, but also in terms of the labor force that the colleges generate. If you were to look at the amount of revenue generated in our businesses, the percentage that could be traced back to Cuesta or Poly would be quite telling of how a college can drive an economy. That number would have to include the money that was spent by alumni that have stayed in the area, current students, parents of students, faculty, staff, and guests and visitors of all of the aforementioned parties. The economic benefit alone is something that many business owners would agree makes waiting in traffic near the colleges more tolerable.
That being said students should bring with them benefits beyond financial gain. Along with a student body comes the cultural benefit of the arts on and off campus. I doubt that I can find a friend or colleague of mine that has never been to a performance on at least one of our campuses in town in a venue that would not have been constructed without the use of student fees or initiatives. Whether it’s a Forbes Pipe Organ concert at Cal Poly or Festival Mozaic at Cuesta, many world renowned musicians have performed in our little town along the coast that otherwise would have been passed up. Beyond the arts, this past year Cal Poly Athletics was all over the local media and Mustang Fever was rampant due to a local fan base. Locals finally had a local team, or two, that they could rally behind, but where did they watch the game from if they couldn’t get to the stadium? Downtown, you couldn’t walk through Downtown without noticing green and gold in the windows, people wearing their Poly gear or games being played on bar and restaurant TV’s. That excitement spreads a noticeable vibe and draws even more people to our Downtown.
There’s also a really great benefit to our community that local colleges attract the best and brightest students from across the country. Cuesta College students took numerous honors at SkillsUSA this past year and will soon be representing our town in Brazil for WorldSkills, an international competition for vocational skills. The competition to be a student in San Luis Obispo is intense and a testament to the quality of education that our colleges provide. Last year nearly 41,000 students applied to Cal Poly for 4,000 open seats! If you look at the numbers, Cal Poly has consistently ranked among the top in the nation for engineering, business, agriculture and most recently, first in the nation for architecture programs. When those students graduate many of them leave, some of them find jobs locally and others start successful businesses here. Both Jamba Juice and iFixit, just outside of Downtown, are popular and wildly successful businesses developed by local alumni but how many alumni run companies are Downtown that are less well known? A lot and the numbers are increasing. Each time one of those businesses starts down here our community grows. Not only because there is a new company but a lot of times those companies use interns from the local student body and give them a first glance into the business world. In SLO a big part of the business world also happens to involve community service and in many different capacities students are encouraged to participate in that same philosophy. Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” concept goes so much deeper than just hands on class work but hands on community participation.
So instead of looking at students as a nuisance, I say that we really should be looking at them as the seeds of the future. We can help to inform them about what it takes to be responsible citizens in the community; in conjunction with the colleges and as residents and business owners, I think we should. Many of the students simply need a bit of guidance and if you really look at why they come to college, it’s because they want to learn and become responsible adults contributing to society. Sure there will always be a few bad seeds and there will be problems with the usual spectrum of parties, noise and traffic but as a whole we are lucky to have a student presence in the Downtown and all of San Luis Obispo.