on student unions and the amtrak…

One of the great things about living in the Northeast and in Boston is that there are a good amount of transit options available- so that you can go carless when traveling and you can also avoid the hassle and security theater of air travel as well. Taking an Accela or the Northeast Regional from NYC to Boston is fairly easy, pretty quick, and definitely cheap. So, when I saw that ACUI would be in Philly, I knew I would take Amtrak rather than having to deal with checked bags and security lines at the airport.

Taking Amtrak, I have also wanted to do some ‘travel’ writing. Since moving to Boston, I’ve come to follow on social media and meet in person a bunch of great transit advocates and travel writers. And I wanted to jump in at some point. In true ACUI fashion, I knew whatever I came up with needed a union flair to it. I’ve done a number of presentations on the relationship of student union or student affairs work with various topics: soccer, international affairs, Star Trek, and in my and Jason Meier’s heads- It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. So, in honor of today’s ride on Amtrak 173, here’s my thoughts on the relationships and connections being a trip on the northeast rails and the student union. 
So, leaving from Boston, my start is always at South Station, with its connection to the Red Line. Outside, South Station is beautiful, ornate, and historic. Lit up at night and constantly bustling during the day , standing up amongst the modernity of the Financial District, South Station is an amazing piece of the fabric of Boston and it’s history. Inside, often tells a different story. I get that because it is a massive transit hub, it needs a variety of food spots, cafes, and newstands. And I don’t have an issue with most of them. There are quite a few empty ghosts in the station, and a particularly ugly, decrepit former Cheeseboy station that has been abandoned for a good couple months. The main issue is the advertising spaces and planning. Huge banners blocking windows, making what should be a large grand hall seem smaller, and when Sprint had the ad buy, casting the entire station in its yellow shade. The walls are covered, the stairs are covered, the historic nature of the building and the beauty of it as a building is covered. 

South Station- the channel transition these ads are touting happened months ago, so this amount of obscuring windows and the height of the hall seems -extra- now.

What I’m getting at is how is your union presenting itself? Is it telling the story of your campus and your students, or is it telling the story of the business renter with the biggest footprint in your space? Are the walls bare, are they covered with signage and posters that showcase the vitality of your campus, do they highlight art from the campus community? Essentially who is your audience and why do you want them in your building? Obviously South Station is catered towards transient, quick moving passengers whose mission is to get somewhere else, but for me, they’ve gone to the extreme and have removed the uniqueness and humanity of the space, so what is the mission of your union and how does it achieve that through space, design, and audience engagement. 

Waiting for a train at South Station is a daunting experience (even worse at Penn Station in New York). You immediately notice everyone there staring up at the big electronic board of departures because departure tracks are not posted until 10-15 minutes ahead of the departure time. When the track number is posted, it’s often a brisk suitcase roll through the line for Starbucks, out the doors and to your track for that prime seat on your favorite car (full disclosure- I was first in line to board my train today- I am that guy). It’s not relaxing, for me it’s nerve wracking even though i know I won’t miss it, I still feel the need to see the track number as quickly as possible. I’m the guy at the airport who constantly rechecks my ticket for a gate number, checks the app on my phone for a gate number, and and checks every screen in the terminals just to make sure of my gate number. 

Our unions are often transitory spaces- whether for students grabbing a snack between classes or for commuter students who have another class later and are just waiting it out. I think overall we think about the needs of our commuter students- whether it’s comfortable lounge space, bathrooms equipped with showers, or a wholly dedicated office to commuter affairs. Some places do it better, and some places need more resources to catch up, but the key is can a variety of community members feel comfortable in your spaces? Comfortable couches- places to charge electronic devices while still getting to use them- places to meet informally and formally with friends, faculty, or work groups- places to nap? Our unions have to be multi-faceted and serve roles as meeting rooms to kitchens to reflective spaces. If students are feeling the uneasiness that I feel in South Station, is there something that could be done better to make spaces feel more like that ‘living room’- where our community members can open up and be themselves?  

So then, let’s talk the train itself I guess. If you’ve ever met me, you probably would guess that my favorite car is of course the quiet car. But, each train, whether Acela or Northeast Regional, has a variety of classes, but each has a quiet car and a cafe car. Just like our unions, which can be transitory, also have to serve a role for those who spend long hours in our buildings. A successful union has a variety of spaces and feelings within it. Quiet student lounges and more open, louder areas made for studying or meeting with friend groups, pubs or food courts. Each of these cars are necessary for the long trip across the northeast, and each of these spaces are key for a union that effectively serves its community. 

My quiet car aesthetic is super shade glances to those who are breaking the sacred quiet rules of the quiet car. But kudos to Amtrak staff who are often moving through the train, answering questions and helping keep the quiet car quiet. Enforcing standards of behavior in a community, public space. Just as we would expect our staff (and our community members) to be vigilant in upholding the values of our spaces, whether it’s bussing your own table or being able to ask someone to watch over a laptop for a quick bathroom break while studying in the union cafe. All these spaces are key, and some community members will only use and appreciate maybe one space, but to have them all there is to best support your customer and your campus community members. 

We just rolled through New Haven, CT, and we’ve gone through a variety of landscapes- from busy harbors, to wetlands, to cities and suburbs. I feel like this trip is completely different each time I take it, but for me, a constant is always the quiet car and it’s passive aggressive loveliness. Your unions will be different each time you come in and utilize the space, but, for each community member, our role in ACUI is ensuring that each person who comes to our buildings is able to find that sense of comfortable familiarity. 
I’ve got about 70 more pages in this Haruki Murakami book, so I’m going to get back on that. See you in a few hours #ACUI17. 


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