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The Student As Citizen

By Daniel Altman

If you walk around the houses these days, you can see long lists of Cambridge's registered voters who also happen to be Harvard students. As Election Day nears, even those of us who don't vote in Cambridge should examine our role as citizens of more than simply the Harvard community.

Most Harvard students have travelled along the Red Line to Central Square for an evening out, some less-expensive shopping or even a bit of fast food. The vast majority, especially residents of the Quad, make at least a few trips each year to Porter Square for similar reasons.

On the other hand, few of us ever make it out to Inman or Union Squares. And while these locales have much to offer for those looking to spend money, they still don't show a truly different side of Cambridge.

We Harvard students see a fairly sanitized version of Cambridge each day; even with the homeless people and panhandlers in the Square, our surroundings are comfortably affluent. But Cambridge is not all quaint boutiques and swank restaurants.

Everyone should try to complete a comprehensive tour of Cambridge and Boston before graduating. I don't mean getting on a trolley with a bunch of tourists. I mean taking a bus or the T and walking around a bit.

Staying within the University's walls--or the confines of the Square, for that matter--could certainly give you an idyllic college experience. But you'd be missing out on the fundamental part of your education provided by the real world around you. Look at peoples' houses, their businesses and the streets and public buildings around them. Try to think how your presence in Cambridge affects the people you see. Don't undertake your tour as an anthropological mission--look at it more as getting to know your neighbors. At the very least, you'll learn some valuable geography.

If you think you've seen it all before, in your own hometown or elsewhere, you could probably use a reminder. In a college-dominated metropolis such as Greater Boston, it's easy for students to pick up a superior attitude something along the lines of, "My consumer dollars make this town run, hence you stop when I run in front of your car."

Even as a significant economic sector in the population, we must be careful to step lightly. We don't pay taxes in Cambridge, so we should have an extra dose of respect for those around us who do. After all, they pay for the T, for the metropolitan police and for the public works from which we all benefit. Making the tour would be a lot harder without these essentially free resources.

After your tour, take a moment to reflect on the public service options at the College. You'll probably find a program related to something interesting or troubling you saw; perhaps you'll see a program that could benefit from your particular expertise. I'm not necessarily saying that everyone should dive into community service the moment they arrive at Harvard. I'm only encouraging you to reconsider how you spend your time, given the world around us.

This year, I did just that. I had taught saxophone at the Tobin Elementary School as a volunteer during my first year here, but I stopped when my classes and other activities became too burdensome. About a month ago, I looked back on the experience--it was enjoyable and fulfilling. I decided, given the options available to me, that it was time to take some time off campus again. I joined my orchestra winner city outreach program, and now I'm playing for public school kids again.

At this moment you might have your eye on a career that will safely ensconce you among the well to do in that case. I especially encourage you to start the tour. Once you've made your way to opulent surrounding at least you will have some idea of how the other side lives.

If you're voting in Cambridge tomorrow. I ask you examine the positions of the councillor closely. Don't just look at how their views will affect you think about how their views and opinons will affect Cambridge as you understand it. After your tour, you'll understand it even latter.

Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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