University’s attempt to give back meets local resistance

Fairfield University leaders proposed the establishment of Bellarmine College as a way to give back to its socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbor, Bridgeport, Conn.

The Jesuit University of Fairfield, Connecticut, developed the plan in partnership with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport to offer low-income Bridgeport students a two-year associate’s degree at little or no cost. It would also offer counseling and mentoring to help these students find employment after graduation or enroll in a bachelor’s degree program, at Fairfield or elsewhere.

Many townspeople are excited about the opportunities Bellarmine presents. But some locals, while appreciative of the mission, resisted efforts by Fairfield University and the diocese to open the college in Bridgeport.

The city granted Fairfield initial approval to set up the college in a former Catholic school building in the north of the city in April. But this the decision was reversed and the diocese withdrew the application following heated opposition from some residents who said the plans violated city zoning laws and expressed concern that the college would cause traffic congestion and diminished value properties.

Tentative plans are underway to house Bellarmine in a alternate location, in another former Catholic school building across town, down the street from Bridgeport Hospital and a methadone clinic, away from predominantly residential neighborhoods. But as negotiations look more optimistic, some residents who live near the new location are expressing the same reservations raised in April.

Jennifer Anderson, Fairfield University’s vice president of marketing and communications, did not respond to questions about residents’ lingering concerns, but said the university is moving forward. The new college is expected to open in fall 2023, with an initial cohort of 100 students, which will grow to 200 the following year.

“Bellarmine is a bold and innovative effort to address the challenges of access and affordability of Jesuit higher education,” she wrote in an email to Inside Higher Education. “It will also serve as the Fairfield University Community Engagement Center for our work serving the Bridgeport community.”

Disagreements between higher education institutions and local residents over campus expansion and property devaluation are not new; some even went to court. But Fairfield’s problems in Bridgeport illustrate the challenges of venturing into a new community, even when the move is designed to benefit the people living there.

Bridgeport above troubled waters

Michelle Lyons, a Bridgeport councilwoman who represents the neighborhood where the original site was proposed, helped lead opposition to the plan. She recruited a retired judge, Carmen Lopez, to appeal against initial city approval. Lyons, who lives directly opposite the proposed site, said residents of the area, which includes a senior center and many retirees, didn’t like the idea of ​​bringing 100 students to the small area every day.

“I didn’t think it would be conducive for people in the neighborhood who have been here a long time. Traffic would increase – we have people riding ATVs on the street, people going around stop signs,” she said. “It’s just too much for this area to add more.”

Other Bridgeport residents were thrilled to hear about a new college. Sylma Vasconcellos has lived in Bridgeport for 30 years, since dropping out of college in Brazil to immigrate to the United States. She has two daughters, one of whom attends the local high school, where Vasconcellos sits on the school’s governing board. She said she believes local students will benefit from the opportunities Bellarmine provides.

“Being involved in high school, I see a lot of students failing, or some whose parents want them to work instead of going to college, or some who are afraid to go to college,” he said. she declared. “Most of the students at Bridgeport are first-generation students, so they don’t have anyone to turn to for advice…I think [Bellarmine] would make a big difference to their success.

Vasconcellos said in city council meetings she attended, concerns were raised largely by retirees, who would not benefit from the college. So she started a Change.org Campaign to try to drum up support from parents in Bridgeport.

“It’s not a big percentage of the community that’s against it,” she said. “They’re just more outspoken.”

Lyons said she represents her neighbors and constituents fairly and stressed that her primary concerns with Bellarmine’s move to Bridgeport are purely practical.

“The program itself is a good program,” she said. “It all comes down to logistics.”

Lyons also wondered why Fairfield hadn’t made room on his own campus for Bellarmine College.

“It really should have taken place on their campus so that young people could experience campus life,” she said.

Anderson said the university and diocese wanted to locate the college in Bridgeport to ensure it would be accessible to residents, and similar ventures by other colleges have proven successful when institutions are housed in communities. they were supposed to serve. She pointed to two initiatives at other Jesuit institutions—Arrupe College of Loyola in Chicago and the Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul—as Fairfield’s models for Bellarmine.

“Experience and studies have shown that placing a program like Bellarmine in the city where the students live is the most effective model for success,” she wrote.

Some locals agree. When the initial plan to locate the college in the north was proposed, leaders of the Bridgeport local NAACP met with the president and provost of Fairfield University about the college. The Reverend D. Stanley Lord, president of the chapter, said their only objection was that it was too far removed from the populations who would benefit most from the college.

“Our everything was accessibility,” he said. “They say if you build it they will come, but in this case they couldn’t come if they couldn’t get there.”

If the east end location is approved, Lord said the university would have the full support of the Bridgeport NAACP.

“There is a great need for a positive environment of a school right there in their own backyard,” he said. “Bellarmin would allow students who did not feel capable of attaining this level of secondary education to now pursue their higher education in their city, and not at a high cost.”

Closing the Opportunity Gap

Fairfield County, where Bridgeport and Fairfield are located, has the highest rate of income inequality of any county in the United States, according to a 2019 Federal Reserve Bank of New York Study. And Bridgeport, the most populous city in the county and state, with nearly 150,000 residents, is also one of Connecticut’s poorest and most diverse.

According 2020 census data, nearly a quarter of Bridgeport’s population lives below the poverty line. And according to a Community Wellbeing Index 2019 According to the Fairfield County Community Foundation, the majority of Bridgeport’s children are from low-income families – 64% in 2017, up from 51% in 2000. The index also showed that 79% of the city’s residents are people of color.

Although it is home to three institutions of higher education – the University of Bridgeport, Sacred Heart University and Housatonic Community College – less than 20% of Bridgeport residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree. , according to 2020 census data.

Meanwhile, just above the Ash Creek Tidal Basin in Fairfield, 5% of residents are poor and 67% of people over 25 have a bachelor’s degree. Fairfield is also 88% white.

Davarian Baldwin, author of In the shadow of the ivory tower, said Connecticut’s socioeconomic inequality is primarily due to the extraction of local wealth away from urban centers and into its suburbs and, by extension, the private universities that primarily serve them. He calls them “islands of wealth,” whirlpools in which the resources of urban centers flow and stick together, and says their creation has always been driven by racism and exploitation.

“There’s a long history of racial disinvestment in building suburbs, and in creating and funding universities to serve those communities,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin, who teaches an hour north of Fairfield at Trinity College, said the root causes of the region’s socio-economic disparity make a low-cost, two-year degree program effectively futile unless it’s be combined with other solutions, including affordable, quality housing and better-paying jobs. — to ensure long-term success.

“We live in a knowledge-based economy where colleges and universities across the country, large and small, are at the center of the economy, in terms of research and development, in terms of real estate, retail, healthcare health and even police. When we factor in all these different layers of disparity, universities do nothing to compensate for it with their degree and tutoring programs,” he said. “Education is an important vehicle for upward mobility, but if you really want to meet the needs of Bridgeport residents, it has to be done in a substantial way.”

Anderson said Bellarmine is Fairfield’s way of working to address the disparity.

“It’s more important than ever to close the opportunity gaps that exist in our communities,” Anderson wrote. “Bellarmine College offers a new pathway to a new group of students who have the potential to succeed, but who missed out on the opportunity presented to them during their high school years.”

Vasconcellos said she loved her hometown, but was “struggling” with poverty, violence and unemployment. She believes Bellarmine would make a difference in the social and economic prospects of her young people and subsequently improve the overall quality of life.

“It has the potential to change Bridgeport itself,” she said. “As more and more people go to school, get jobs, the whole environment, everything will improve.”

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