I had the opportunity to be a panelist up at Kent State last week in a strategic planning session that focused on international students and their impact in the Kent community. I was joined by a couple of local business representatives and Portage County Commissioner Smeiles. We had about an hour to discuss the challenges and opportunities for increasing international students in Kent and it was great to see parts of the University’s international action plan being scripted.
Dr. Lefton has been advocating hard for expanding the international student presence at Kent State and for increasing Kent State’s presence internationally with campus offices spread around the globe. It was clear from the time we spent on campus that his deans and faculty are taking this challenge seriously. Kent State has a great tradition of international engagement but there’s no question that they are looking to raise the bar.
Like most good strategic planning sessions the ideas were flowing and information was jumping around the room as the various players began to connect the dots of opportunities to develop action steps to include in their strategic plan. As would be expected at an institution of higher learning most of the morning and afternoon sessions were devoted to academics but they carved a time slot for us just before lunch that was titled Enhancing Our Community: Creating Cultural Context.
I think that’s a perfect description for exactly what we are trying to do on many levels with the partnerships in downtown Kent — create the kind of cultural context that university cities are known for and leveraging that unique cultural context into our strongest asset that sets us apart from all those suburbany non-university cities around us. We’ve got a lot of really great assets in Kent like the Cuyahoga River, a good school system, great parks, low crime, low cost of living, blah-blah-blah.
I’m not diminishing the importance of any one of those assets but honestly those are must have’s that pretty much describe every other community too. If you don’t have those things you’re not even in the game. Sure, some places do parks better than us and we might do the River better than others but overall there’s barely a few degrees of separation on these community amenities — and a few degrees of separation isn’t even going to buy you a cup of coffee.
But when you throw in 32,000 students and the amazing multi-cultural mix that comes with them you’ve got a potential game changer. You get that mix right, and give people of all ethnicities places to gather, mingle, learn, live and play together, and you’ve just leap-frogged yourself to the front of the line of best places to live. In today’s flat world having an international perspective and multi-cultural exposure is a huge advantage. Typically, to get that kind of cultural experience you’ve got to pay the price of living in a big city where you also get lost in traffic and lost in the hectic lifestlye that comes with needing dual incomes to be able to afford to live there. I know of what I speak because I lived in Washington DC for 12 years and the local high school proudly noted that over 90 languages were spoken in that school — it was the great mixing bowl — but you rarely had any time to enjoy it because you spent hours in traffic, hours in lines at grocery stores and hours recovering from spending hours in lines.
To that extent it was like living in a museum — you were surrounded by some terrific amenities and unbelievable diversity but you couldn’t touch it or interact with the exhibits; to the point where began to feel like an exhibit yourself watching the world go by from inside the glass cage, just another rat in the maze. Kent to the rescue.
What’s different about Kent is how we’re able to do bundle all those big city cultural amenities into a small town package that leaves plenty of room for living. Great works of art may end up hanging on display in museums but they’re made in the streets of places like Kent where life is hands-on. Whether its sports teams or community building the key to success is leading with your strengths and in our case our quality of life — or what I call the Kent lifestyle — is the Kent advantage. And in one way or another that Kent lifestyle is derived from having the 2nd largest public university in Ohio call us home.
When you get right down to it we think that by cultivating our ecclectic and unique lifestyle we can make Kent the city of choice for anyone in Northeast Ohio who is looking to be in a place that is known for its energetic and diverse residents that want to connect to their community in a personally meaningful and enriching way. That is the core strategy that the City is trying to put to work most visibly in the downtown revitalization effort but it touches upon just about everything we do.
This morning I received an unsolicited email from a Kent resident that affimed the value of the Kent lifestyle in real world terms, not in fancy advertising phrases — which is exactly why I liked it so much.