School, city officials reach out to students scattered all over Columbia
When you answer your front door in nothing but a pair of sweatpants and a nervous smile, you’re probably not expecting Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin to beam from the other side.
And casual Friday afternoon swigs on a Natural Light aren’t usually interrupted with an inpromptu hello from the police chief.
But so it was Friday afternoon, as about 150 nervous students were greeted by USC leaders, police brass, city officials and others as part of the second annual Off Campus Student Services Neighborhood Welcome. About 35 volunteers scoured several neighborhoods around Columbia, giving hesitant students who answered a surprising doorbell goodie bags, smiles and advice on how to be a good neighbor.
“It makes me feel great they’re stopping by,” said Will Payne, a fourth-year political science student. “What more could you ask for?”
Officials say the afternoon outreach is vital on a campus where more than 65 percent of the student body lives in apartment complexes or houses not owned by the university. Letting students know who to contact for emergency — or non-emergency — situations is a little more difficult when they’re not always on campus, according to USC officials.
And they say encouraging good behavior for off-campus students is beneficial for both the university’s reputation and the community.
“It’s about us giving them a face,” said Jami Campbell, assistant director of Off Campus Student Services. “And they give us a good reaction.”
But Payne’s initial look was a little more startling. So was the facial expression from dozens of others, who wondered aloud if a crime had happened or whether they were in trouble. After the initial shock, the conversation drifted toward small talk — sometimes awkward, sometimes friendly.
City and university police officers — including Columbia Chief Randy Scott, who joined for part of the afternoon — quizzed students on their surroundings and housing conditions. They heard some students describe perfect housing conditions, while others complained about poor landlords, needed repairs or even bats in the ceiling.
“If y’all ever need the police department for anything, don’t hesitate to call us,” Scott told a somewhat surprised second-year middle level education student, Megan Romberg. “When you call us because you see someone walking down the street looking into cars, you might be helping us solve a string of car break-ins.
“It’s good to see they’re real people,” Romberg said. “I’m used to them just being mean in Five Points.”