Our 10th KAUSTiversary: making the most of living in a small town

By | July 12, 2021
10 years ago this week

I grew up in a suburb of a big city. I then moved to a relatively small city of 125,000 people. When we moved to KAUST, 10 years ago today, there were less than 3000 people living on campus. It was a teeny, tiny community in comparison to what I was used to. We knew, or at least recognized, nearly everyone here. Today, that number has more than doubled to over 7400 people living at KAUST and there are tons of people I don’t even recognize. While we’re growing fast, we will always be a small town.

I believe that with living in a very small town comes the responsibility of every citizen to make the most of it. As I reflect on our 10 years here, I want to share a few thoughts on how anyone can make a positive impact in their small town.

Be The Change

So, how can you make the most of your time at KAUST – or in any small town? First, I encourage you to “be the change you wish to see”. What I mean by this is that if you have a vision for how something can be improved, you should help make it happen. Say for instance, you see a car speeding. You have the choice to take that as your example of how people drive and start driving recklessly. Or, you can choose to take a speeding car as your reminder to drive even more carefully – to be one of the people who drives carefully as an example to others and to ensure your own safety. Small behavior changes and leading by example like this can make a big impact.

But, what about the big stuff? You can’t make every issue “your issue”. It’s not sustainable, and plus, it can make you a bit grumpy.

So, how do you make an impact without getting burned out and grumpy?

Identify your Impact Point

In a small town, you may be the only person with the specific skillset to make that improvement and you may be the only one with the passion it will take to make your vision a reality. If you want to make the most of your time in a small town, pick a topic that you can shape – an impact point – and use that to focus your efforts. Your impact point should be something big, but realistic. Don’t nit pick, but also recognize that you may not be able to change an entire community all at once. Start small, prove your efficacy, and grow from there.

Here are some examples of the kind of impact I’m talking about:

1. Community Building

As I’m trying to illustrate “being the change” let me use myself as an example: In my past I worked for the American Red Cross on social media disaster response, and with other non-profits in online and offline community building. So how do I translate those skills and passions into a small-town context? I have a background working in social media, community building, writing etc, so I use those skills to help grow our little community. For instance: I write on ClaireSale.com. I serve as a Community Rep and in the KAUST Volunteer Fire Department. I created a group for pregnant and new parents. I regularly assist individual community members to help them take an idea and turn it into reality. I use the skillset I have to inform, educate, and empower community members. My impact point is community building.

2. School Spirit

Photo courtesy Luca Passone

The 5th anniversary community picture is another great example. A small group of community members decided they wanted to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the university in their own way. They used their skillsets to organize a university/community pride event which was very inclusive, worked through the existing system, and ended up with a really impactful outcome. Their impact point was school spirit.

3. Inclusive Cultural Events

Lastly, I’d like to share about an event that I haven’t written about in the past. Since even before we moved here, there has been a Halloween event for the children at KAUST. Several of the school teachers organized a small event the first year, and since then the event has grown to be something the whole community can join if they wish, with the wonderful Sami Villalba taking the helm in recent years. The organizers used their knowledge of a cultural event, made it appropriate within the KAUST context, and invited the whole community to participate. Recently, they even successfully adapted it and made it work for the COVID context. Their impact point is hosting inclusive cultural events.

There are many, many other examples that I could include here, but these examples give you an idea of how you can use your talents to make our community more interesting and exciting not just for yourself, but also for your neighbors.


How do you turn your idea into action? In some cases this is easy, in others this is hard. Within the KAUST context, I’d like to offer the following suggestions:

First, make sure that your idea is culturally appropriate. Several people have suggested that KAUST needs an ice rink. To me, this is just simply not appropriate (for starters, we live in a desert and aim to be a green community!) Think of how your idea may be received by other cultures, and how appropriate it is within the setting of our small community.

Next, make sure that you contact the right people about your idea! If you want to host a community program or event, contact GetEngaged@kaust.edu.sa. If you have a comment about gardening contact 959. If you see a near-miss, use reportit. You must first start with the right people and see what they think.

Lastly, is your mindset. This is true no matter your community or your place. You can make the most impact if you surround yourself with positive people and changemakers. A long-term mindset for your life here wouldn’t hurt either.

As I reflect on my 10 years at KAUST, I am reminded that our small town is full of very well educated, civically minded, and engaged people. And, we all have the opportunity to shape what “home” means in our very young community.

What do you think?

Thoughts, tips, examples, questions, and ideas all welcome! Please share a comment below.