After reading the New York Times opinion guest essay by Nick Burns Elite Universities Are Out of Touch. Blame the Campus let me give credit where credit’s due to the schools I attended since coming to this country on a student visa many years ago.
In the 1960’s Los Angeles City College sat in the middle of a residential area where lower-income families lived, many like mine shortly after their arrival in our country. In sharp contrast to the two larger colleges in the city: USC and UCLA, tuition at LACC was very affordable, and its campus and facilities fully accessible and available to the community at large. I started in night school and went for three years, studying Romance languages and working daytime as a court interpreter, something I could not have done other than at LACC.
After an audition that got me a scholarship, I next went to the Juilliard School of Music, located back then in the upper west side of Manhattan, in a building now occupied by the Manhattan School of Music.
Juilliard sat back then in haughty isolation in a low-income neighborhood straddled by the south end of Harlem and in the vicinity of Columbia University and Riverside Park. As a music student in that world class conservatory all I saw of the neighborhood was the walk from where I lived, the International House of Students on Claremont Avenue to Julliard across the street, and the slightly longer walk to the IRT Seventh Avenue stop at 125th street.
Next in my academic pursuits was the College Conservatory of Music which was in the process of relocating to the main campus of the University of Cincinnati.
What had been a very exclusive music school with origins in the distant past as a finishing school for young white ladies from wealthy families was starting to blossom into what is today one of the top performing arts schools in the country, giving hundreds of performances of music, dance, and theatre events, many of which are free to the university community and to the community at large.
And finally, then married and living on a survival income, my wife and I together went to the oldest private music conservatory in the United States – the New England Conservatory of Music. We were there to earn our master’s degrees on partial scholarships, and we had to pay for a portion of our tuition plus living expenses, gas, music scores, etc. To survive we took gigs all over the map of New England, all the while going to school full time.
The venerable landmark building occupied by NEC had been there since 1901 and the neighborhood had seen better days. Like most of our fellow students all we saw was the inside of the building, other than an occasional concert of the BSO or an opera in Boston’s Music Hall, just a couple of blocks away.
We often took our only meal (other than our hasty breakfast at home) Monday through Friday at a Greek cafeteria where we could share a soft drink and the daily special for under two dollars, often in the company of the tired, poor, and huddled masses of the neighborhood. Although NEC sat in the middle of a then decaying neighborhood, we never sensed an attitude of superiority or entitlement from either our faculty or our student friends. Things were what they were, and isolation from the surrounding reality was a fact of life back in the fraught 1970’s.
Coming and going through a 45-year career in the performing arts we lived in many cities in our country, travelled to many foreign countries, and became involved in the life of several academic institutions, several of which were exemplary in the way they earnestly tried to integrate themselves into the surrounding community. What I see these days is a positive pattern of outreach to the surrounding communities on the part of academic institutions, most especially those located in the middle of a sprawling urban area.
Our journey has brought us full circle to CCM, the Alma Mater where we had begun both our life together as a married couple and our journey in the arts. CCM is most certainly not an elite stronghold, but a source of the sentiment we Cincinnatians call Cincinnati Proud.
Rafael de Acha (c) 2022