Growing up in a military family shaped the way I relate to a sense of place. On the one hand, my connection to where we lived was always temporary. On the other, I learned quickly that each place I lived left a lasting imprint on who I was. Each new hometown had its own customs, cuisine, and culture, but all of the places had a sandwich shop, a school for me to attend, confusing intersections, and interesting people. Learning to understand the unique qualities of each place became an important skill, one that in many ways is central to my identity and my work.
In honor of my tenth year in Williamsburg, a W&M friend sent me This is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick. Warnick writes about the practices of belonging that help people feel connected to where they live. Walking around, shopping local, and volunteering, are a few of the best ways to get to know your community and find your place in it. I already had a strong sense of belonging here, but the 10-year mark and the book inspired me to dig a little deeper.
Crowd-sourcing from friends and colleagues, I made a list of Williamsburg experiences I had yet to have. Then I set off and:
- Rode the trolley (free to W&M students, faculty, and staff). I now take my students on a trolley as a way to see their new community and think about local transportation.
- Rented a bike and traveled a very short distance on the Capital Trail, even stopping to pick up litter in honor of Anne.
- Enjoyed a nice meal at Berret’s restaurant which has become a favorite spot.
- Attended a Jazzercise class in the studio, and I loved it so much I became a member.
- Celebrated my birthday at Go-Karts Plus, taking the unconventional approach of driving slowly around the track because I didn’t want the ride to end.
- Relaxed in the Salt Spa which started a tradition of relaxation adventures.
- Attended a service at Bruton Parish and was humbled by the music of their choir.
The trolley is a great way to see downtown Williamsburg
Jazzercise is no joke. I was worn out after my first class.
My first time on a bike in quite a few years.
There are a few things still left on that original list, and every so often I add a new item. Of course, I will never experience all of Williamsburg, or all of any place I live, but the practice of looking for what I haven’t noticed is what helps deepen my connection to this place.
It’s also a lot of what I do with my students. For them, the work of noticing is often about learning not only what restaurants are in town, but also how the service industry affects local wages. I ask them to note where the sidewalk ends and think about what it means to walk to work alongside fast-moving traffic. They might begin to notice that many local volunteers serve with multiple non-profits. With Williamsburg only taking up nine square miles, it is literally a short walk to find our city council, library, fire station, sandwich shop, and confusing traffic intersection. That is why it is such a great place to learn about place.
As students begin to notice and understand this community, they also come to understand that they are part of this community. They belong here and their time here, while limited, will continue to shape who they are. That is certainly true of the education they get in the classroom, but they will also remember their Wawa order years from now. That our main street is DoG street, with no canine connection, will always make sense to them. And they will always know that every community is more complex than its postcard image.
Whether coming to W&M is your first time living in a new place, or like me, it’s the next move on the list, this is a place you can belong. That’s not just because I say so, but because I am here—as are many others—to help you learn what that means.
Looking for a way to jump start your sense of belonging at W&M and in Williamsburg? Registration for our community engagement pre-orientation trips is open through July 22, 2019.