Tufts students from Medford and Somerville reflect on their hometown communities

The newly-constructed Somerville High School building is pictured in December, 2021. via Wikimedia Commons
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For many Tufts students, the cities of Medford and Somerville are new and unfamiliar. They get to know the cities slowly, through weekend ventures to Davis Square or late night stops at Medford pizzerias. Other students, however, have called these communities home long before their time at Tufts. The cities that surround Tufts are not just their college towns but places that house their hometown high schools, childhood friends and family members. In conversations with the Daily, students from Medford and Somerville shared some of their stories, reflecting on what they’ve learned and how their hometowns have changed.

An alumna of Medford High School, sophomore Qing Cheng, was born in China and lived there for nearly 10 years before moving to the United States. After living in Chinatown in Boston for a while, she moved to Medford in 2013.

Growing up, a few of Cheng’s favorite places in Medford included the Medford Public Library and MacDonald Park. She said she appreciates the city’s simplicity.

“I feel like … Tufts students, when they want to do something, they want to go to Davis or they go into Boston because they think there is nothing to do in Medford, which might be true,” Cheng said. “But with my personality, I kind of like it. It’s a quiet place, [and] it’s really calm.”

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Emily Childs, a sophomore, lived in Boston for years before moving to Somerville. She describes attending Somerville High School as a transformative experience.

“Somerville High School fostered such this nature of acceptance and openness and love, and I had never experienced that in a school setting, to that extent,” Childs said.

Now as a Tufts student, Childs volunteers in her hometown community through the club Strong Women, Strong Girls, which offers mentorship to young girls at Somerville and Medford elementary schools.

Justin Millette, a first-year, is a graduate of Somerville High School. He has deep roots in the area — he’s lived in Somerville his whole life, and his dad attended Tufts. He said he was happy to stay here for college.

“I like the people,” Millette said. “I like most things about Massachusetts [and the] Boston area, so I’m happy to still be here.”

Julian Portelli has also lived in Somerville for his whole life. Similar to Childs, Portelli, a sophomore, still actively gives back to his community through FitMoney Fellows, an organization that teaches financial literacy to high school students in the Boston metro area, including those who attend his former high school.

Given the proximity of his hometown to Tufts, the university had a fairly large presence in Portelli’s childhood. His brother attended the school, and he visited the university a few times on school field trips. Portelli reflected on how his perception of Tufts has changed since his childhood.

“When I was a freshman, there was a culture shock,” Portelli said. “Somerville High [School], I think is like 70% nonwhite. That’s not what Tufts is. In terms of economic situations, people out here have fancy cars and fancy Canada Goose jackets. … That’s not something I was used to either, so I guess that is how my definition of Tufts has changed.”

Raised in Davis Square, Portelli notes how his perception of his hometown has also changed, mostly due to the fact that the area has become quite different in recent years.

“Now, it’s really expensive to live in Davis Square,” Portelli said. “It’s kind of sad. I have a lot of friends that can’t afford to live in Somerville anymore, that I’ve lived with my whole life.”

Childs agreed, sharing how she has taken note of rapid changes in the Somerville community in recent years.

“I have definitely noticed [gentrification],” Childs said. “I think that the Green Line Extension is a testament to that. From my personal experience, … [Somerville] looks so different from how it did just five years ago. There was this … convenience store that was on the corner of Cedar and Highland, … and magically in five years, it has been knocked down, and a huge condo is in that place now.”

Childs also touched upon the way in which Tufts’ growing presence affects the broader community.

“Housing is another thing that’s been a major conversation by Somerville residents, because Tufts students are obviously starting to overtake this area, especially as class years just get bigger and bigger,” Childs said.

As the community around Tufts shifts and changes through the years, Childs and Millette also reflected on how their own perceptions of the area have changed since experiencing the Medford/Somerville community as college students.

“Before, [my perspective] was definitely in the lens of how things affected me as a high schooler or as a middle schooler, but now, I definitely see the more big world perspective of how Somerville is, in fact, succumbing to gentrification,” Childs said.

Millette added that his hometown has become more interesting through the freedom of exploring it as an adult.

“I’m seeing it through a new lens, and that lens is of a person who has access to literally almost anywhere,” Millette said. “Because of that, I now have a perspective of, ‘Okay, this place is actually really interesting.’”

Despite this new lens, certain places are still associated with past memories for students who grew up in the area.

A special connection that Childs shares with the area is that her parents got engaged in Powderhouse Park, a place that she returned to in her first year of college.

“I was like, ‘Wow, … [my parents] decided to get married in the spot that I’m now sharing with my first college friends,’” Childs said.

Portelli shared some of his favorite memories from different restaurants and cafes around Somerville.

“Playing pool at Diesel Cafe was something I used to love doing,” Portelli said. “They used to [charge] like $5 an hour to play pool, and you would go as a group. … Actually, Pini’s Pizza … used to be on Broadway [in Somerville]. … It was kind of a staple for us.”

Cheng shared how the Orange Line holds memories of time with her family.

“The Wellington area [is meaningful to me], because before my family had a car, we would always take the bus and take the train to get anywhere,” Cheng said. “We would always take the Orange Line to go into Chinatown. I heard some people say, ‘The Orange Line is so sketchy. It’s so old,’ … and I’m just like ‘Okay, it’s what I grew up being used to, so I don’t really mind it.’”

Going forward, Childs shared that she hopes that more Tufts students will work to interact with the surrounding community.

“We just don’t see a lot of effort [from most on-campus organizations] to bring the community together,” Childs said. “Davis [Square] and West [Somerville] is like the whitest part of Somerville by far, and that’s all Tufts [students] get to see.”

Portelli wishes other students knew that Somerville is so much more than just Davis Square and the Tufts campus.

“I think when Tufts students think ‘Somerville,’ it’s just ‘Davis Square,’” Portelli said. “That’s kind of just not true. There’s East Somerville [where] there’s a ton of restaurants and barber shops. There’s Union Square that people can go to. … I’m not saying ‘Oh go to this place or this place,’ but I just … wish people knew that Somervillle’s not just Davis [Square].”

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