From the President: Builders of community through the creation of the third place

From the President: Builders of community through the creation of the third placeDaniel Maxwell2004-11-018Boardroomfalse

I have had a challenging, yet rewarding semester at work. This year has taken a little while for me to find my groove in regard to balancing additional duties at Western Illinois University, my ACUI presidency, and my personal life. I have tried to find pockets of time to reflect, rejoice, and relax. It has not always been easy, but I am committed to keeping sane during this transition in my professional life. At times, I find myself reflecting on some personal and professional accomplishments from earlier this year.

One of my personal highlights was celebrating my 40th birthday. It was not a difficult celebration for me as I have always embraced the experiences in my life. I am a lucky and blessed man. I have a family that I love and who unconditionally love me back. I have passion for my career and find joy in the work that I do even on the days when all I want to do is to go home and climb back into bed (Can some of you relate?). I am committed to my personal and professional relationships and friendships, and I treasure my friends as an extension of my family.

When I began to think about how I wanted to celebrate this milestone in my life, there was no hesitation in my mind about who would be there or where I wanted to celebrate. The “who” was the easy part. I wanted all of my friends who lived locally to be present—even the ones who do not socialize in the same circles. I simply wanted to be surrounded by those individuals who are important to me and who make Macomb, Ill., my home.

The “where” also was a no-brainer. I had to find a way to celebrate in my favorite “hang out” off the town square. Now, there are not too many places where I “hang out” in a small, rural college town. This place is special to me. I can always find someone to talk to, be greeted with a warm and caring smile, and enjoy food and laughter along with the company of friends. It is Macomb’s own version of “Cheers” as far as I am concerned. While Magnolia’s is only open Thursday through Saturday, I can easily find friends and community leaders enjoying a meal and one another’s company each weekend. I don’t always find the same individuals there when I am able to go, but we find an opportunity to share in conversation, look over Chandler Park, and talk about the recent events locally, regionally, and nationally and how they may impact us in rural Illinois.

The celebration was a success. Individuals from this quaint little community who do not typically socialize with one another were all together for this evening, sharing in conversation, meeting new friends, and laughing. I was overwhelmed by one of my best friends as she drove in from Valparaiso, Ind., to be with me along with another friend and former staff member who traveled from Columbia, Mo. As I reflect on that evening, I have come to realize that I have identified one of my “third places,” and it reminds me of the importance that the “third place” plays in our lives.

Oldenburg (1989) identifies your first place as your home and your second place as your work. And then there is your third place. Third places are described with the essential ingredients including (Oldenburg, 2001):

  • They must be free or relatively inexpensive to enter and to purchase food and drink.
  • They must be highly accessible; ideally one should be able to get there by foot from one’s home.
  • A number of people can be expected to be there on a daily basis.
  • All people should feel welcome; it should be easy to get into a conversation. A person who goes there should be able to find both old and new friends each time they visit.

    My third places have always played a critical role in my development during the last couple of decades. When I was a youngster growing up in western Massachusetts, you could always find my siblings and me at the town recreation center during the summer months. We would walk or ride our bikes with our neighborhood buddies, play in the pool all day, participate in the recreation activities, and, on rare occasions, go to the bowling center three towns over on a big old Greyhound bus for an afternoon of bowling.

    During my high school years in New Hampshire, we would hang out in the senior lounge or the cafeteria during open period. During the summers we would be at the town park where we could be found from morning swim team practice, through swim lessons, and hanging out with friends until it was time to ride our bikes home for dinner. We would talk about our future, going to college, how our teams would do, and if we would make the play-offs.

    During my college years at Syracuse University, my third places included the student lounge in the management building, the resident assistant lounge in my hall, my fraternity house, and the best local pizza house one block from campus. During my senior year, the college union was built in the middle of campus, and I found my final third place. It is there that I worked with the center’s first director and one of my mentors, Toby Peters. My friends and I would hang out in the student organization center, meet for lectures, and recruit new members for our fraternity. It is where students came together and took “ownership” of the university through programs, activities, and governance.

    Recently, in reading “Celebrating the Third Place” (Oldenburg, 2001) as part of my department’s training and staff development program, it became apparent to me that the work we do in building community on our college campus goes hand in hand with recognizing the third places created by our union facilities, programs, and activities. In discussion with the staff this summer, we talked about the bowling and billiards center, the coffee shop, the food court, and the lounge space in our union. We have brainstormed about the third places in our town and how some of our students go off campus to find and create their own third spaces. We reflected on how, at times, we have to explain to colleagues, vice presidents, and campus leaders why lounges, leisure and recreation activity spaces, coffee shops, and outdoor sitting areas are crucial parts of our facility. As members of the Association and for those of us who work in a college union facility, it is easy to observe the needs met by our students, faculty, and staff who find common places to gather, to share ideas, to laugh, and to resolve their issues within and around our college unions.

    Our facilities provide shared space where informal gatherings can take place from the earliest parts of our day to the last minute that the lights are on before we lock up for the evening. Our college unions and programs provide individuals a place to go, to learn, to be involved, and to be engaged in their community. For some, our facilities are multiuse spaces that bring cross functions/departments together like multicultural activities next to a bookstore, or student organization space adjacent to a food court, or administrative offices for various campus leaders near a lounge or art gallery. The space itself and those who use it through programs, functions, and campus-wide activities, draw members of the community together. What some may not see is the companionship that is promoted, the civic pride of being involved, the ability to gear up or wind down depending on what is going on, and the chance to have some ownership in the development of their respective community.

    The Association’s definition for community states: “Community is a broad vision for campus life that allows all groups and individuals to learn, grow, and develop to their greatest potential in a challenging yet supportive environment.” With our commitment to being community builders through the work we do, we must recognize the existence of the third places our students, staff, and faculty members are creating in our unions and through our programs. Recognizing the third places is one step we can take. It also is important that we not only build communities but that we clearly articulate how we do this as union and student activities professionals and why we do it. Educating our peers on the existence of third places and their importance will help to build coalitions and partners in our work. As an association, it is our hope to provide you with the tools and experiences to do just that and to recognize and celebrate the third places!

Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place. New York: Marlowe and Company.
Oldenburg, R. (2001). Celebrating the third place. New York: Marlowe and Company.
Updated Nov. 9, 2012