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Market Squared: Students may be here for a long time, and not just a good time...

University of Guelph's students return to town this weekend, but let us remember the vast majority of them are people who could be future Guelph citizens, and not drunken monsters
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University of Guelph file photo. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday

Everybody’s gearing up for back to school, even City Hall and the Guelph Police Service who sent out the same press release near simultaneously on Wednesday to let everyone know that finding room at the downtown pubs on the weekend is about to get a whole lot harder. 

To the credit of the University of Guelph and the City of Guelph, the days of a September free-for-all on the weekend that’s some combination of Mardi Gras and every college party you’ve ever seen in a movie, are over. That’s much to the relief of those that live in and around downtown that use the nighttime, even on the weekend, to sleep. 

The Safe Semester program is evidently the reason why. Guelph Police and Bylaw shut down certain sections of certain streets, Transit puts on late night buses to service a route from downtown to the greater university area, taxi stands are set up in designated areas, and portable washrooms are brought it to discourage… You know. 

Is it perfect? No, but Safe Semester has done a lot to make the deluge bearable, if not outright manageable. It turns out you can herd cats, or maybe herd just enough cats that no one minds if a couple of cats fall out of line and pee somewhere that’s not their litter box. 

It’s not a moment too soon, because the students of the U of G had a bad reputation, and it was not entirely earned by them. The timing was suspicious because the problems seem to mainly reveal themselves when the university is in session full-time, but that’s also because September through April is when student volume is high. 

Let’s talk anecdotes. During my time as a front desk clerk at a local hotel not too far away from a Guelph institution on Woodlawn Road, really the only “party town” in Guelph not in the centralized entertainment district, I can say I saw the worst of Guelph’s celebration destination reputation. 

That’s the kind of alliteration you can only make and enjoy while sober, which is a lonely proposition at 4 a.m. when drunkards can’t understand that the party ends at last call because even though it’s Saturday night, some people at a hotel actually have to sleep and get up early Sunday morning. And before you grit your teeth and curse those kids at Moo U and their lack of respect, let me tell you, they weren’t all students, and most of them didn’t live in Guelph any part of the year. 

I’m not going to name this establishment that was within walking distance of the hotel I worked at, but I did ask once why so many out-of-towners are attracted to it, and I was told it was because the thematic basis of this bar was “legitimate”. People literally came from all over southwestern Ontario to Guelph to revel in the “legit-ness” of this bar. Fine. Whatever. 

But there were also just people looking for trouble. For the three years I did overnights on the weekends, Rib Fest weekend was always accompanied by a Saturday night brawl that involved at least one employee of the one of the venders. How these people worked sweltering over the barbecue all day in the hot park, then go to the bar till last call and still have the energy to establish macho physical dominance is vexing, but was this yearly title match the fault of the university? Hardly. 

My time in the university press pits about a decade ago occasionally meant confronting the town versus gown drama of who’s to blame for the noise, the garbage, the barf, etc. Sometimes it was the students, sometimes it was the police, and sometimes it was the bar owners. The blame game was on an epic scale (in Guelph terms anyway). 

For me and my colleagues, we knew that the university student community, en masse, was not to blame. In our second floor bubble in the University Centre we knew that the volunteers of the various student charities weren’t destroying property, we knew that the student government isn’t ending up in the drunk tank, and certainly the nerds of the gaming club weren’t deficating in the entrance way of downtown business. 

I have huge problems with the painting of the broad university community with the brush of overprivileged punks prioritizing debauchery over their education. Most of my friends and acquaintances at university were seriously studious people that were dedicated to their classes, and many of them were there thanks to student loans, part-time jobs, or some combination thereof.

Did they enjoy a drink and a nosh? Of course. Were they working for the weekend, as the saying goes? No, and after the first couple of weeks of the school year, the business of essays, exams, and seminar work or labs ends up eating a lot of that “free” time. 

It can be stressful, and whenever I think about what’s going on at the University of Guelph these days, I can’t help but think of the mental health crisis there last year, those students that took their own lives. It’s strange that there’s big news about the comprehensive plan for dealing with the party people at the U of G this year, but there’s nothing about how the school might make sure this year there’s zero students that end up killing themselves. 

That’s not to compare the two problems as equal, and equally solvable, but it does seem that there’s more concern about the bad apples than the ones suffering silently. Perhaps now that the one’s in hand, we might give some energy to the other. 

And if anything else, yes, let’s keep in mind that university students are not drunken monsters here to make your life miserable. Generally, when talking to people and how they relate to their student neighbours, success is usually defined by the effort they make to get to know those neighbours and not just assume they’re no-good-nicks there to bring down the neighbourhood. 

Today’s students, might be tomorrow’s dedicated Guelph citizen. Someone that settles here, starts a family here, starts a small business here, or starts a moderately success political website here. (Hint, hint.)

So this weekend, raise a glass to the tomorrow people. They may be here a while, and quite likely, they’ll make Guelph a better place, and not a worse one.