By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star
---- — ONEONTA — Nicole Foti, 20, and Bridget Dickson, 2, put their heads together to decide which stickers to put onto a card. The result was pink and purple and had a beach theme, plus a couple of ponies.
Foti, a SUNY Oneonta student, and Bridget were working on a crafts project Sunday during Autumn Connection, a get-together at the Elks Club in Oneonta. The event was designed to give students and residents a chance to meet, mingle and improve town-gown relations.
“I think it’s great,’’ Oneonta resident Rick Dickson, Bridget’s father, said. “It’s nice to see the college students doing something to bridge the gap in the community.’’
Dickson said he also appreciated an event that provided indoor activities for his daughter on a cloudy, wintry Sunday.
Dawn Sohns, a full-time lecturer at the State University College at Oneonta, said the event was a project developed by about 45 students in her public relations course. Sohns estimated that residents from about 30 households attended Sunday’s event.
The academic goal was to learn elements of a public relations event, Sohns said, and the community-oriented goal was to create an opportunity for students and residents to meet and interact in a positive environment.
“I want people to know how wonderful our students are,’’ she said. At the conclusion of the event Sunday, Sohns said the project was successful in meeting both goals and will be discussed in class later this week to generate a fuller assessment.
Residents who attended will speak to their neighbors, which will further the project’s goal to develop positive town-gown relations, Sohn said.
“We accomplished our objectives,’’ Sohns said. “It was definitely worth the effort.’’
David Rissberger, Common Council member representing the Third Ward where tensions have developed this fall, praised the student project.
“This is fantastic,’’ Rissberger said at the close of the event. Residents had a chance to experience the positive efforts of students, students had opportunities to meet residents, he said, and the event helped bring the two separate populations together.
“We can’t afford to live separately any more,’’ Rissberger said. In organizing Autumn Connection, students from the class attended a recent Third Ward meeting.
On Sunday, several students said they wanted to emphasize that the majority of SUNY Oneonta students are well-behaved, respect local residents and wish to be good neighbors. They want residents to know that poor behavior by a few students doesn’t accurately reflect the views that most SUNY Oneonta students have about living in the local community.
For Sunday’s event, students in the course recruited peers in music and dance groups to perform. And Japanese students provided illustrated translations of names for adults and children.
Sohns said previous projects developed by students taking the course included fundraising events for local nonprofit organizations. Students came up with the idea for Autumn Connection and did research to identify issues, possible solutions and implementing the project, she said.
Some tensions have arisen in Oneonta since the start of the academic year and the influx of students, who have lifestyles that differ from families with children, Sohns said. An event such as Autumn Connection can help residents overcome wariness about interacting with college students, she said.
Valerie Mercurio, 22, a senior from Smithtown, said she and some other students went door-to-door in Center City to give residents personal invitations to Sunday’s event.
“I do wish there were some more community members here,’’ Mercurio, a mathematics and communications major, said during the program.
High Street resident Brad Osborn said he found out about Autumn Connection because a SUNY Oneonta student knocked on his door to deliver an invitation.
Colin Gallagher, 21, a business economics major from Lake George, said the attendance level by residents was sufficient to consider the project a success. As a result of Autumn Connection, he met Osborn, who shared tales about growing up and military experiences.
“He’s got some amazing stories,’’ Gallagher said. “I really think it’s important to meet with the community.’’