Building the Student Experience
Even though she felt intimidated, Lauren Brajer ’08 knew she had to say something. She was the only student present in the imposinglypaneled Wall Boardroom that day in 2007 for the quarterly board of trustees meeting. The topic under discussion by the trustees and senior university administrators was student retention and how to improve it. As president of the Student Government Association (SGA), Brajer knew she had an obligation to be the voice of the students she was elected to represent. And as a student, she had an idea or two of her own about what the university needed to do to keep her classmates engaged and enrolled until they graduated.
“Here I was, a little girl from New Jersey among these distinguished leaders, but I spoke up,” remembers Brajer. “I knew we needed better recreation facilities for students—a gym for students who were not athletes.” The lure of off-campus attractions was preventing many students from forming an attachment to CCU, she felt, and a first-rate recreation and activities center would keep more students on campus.
Partly as a result of Brajer’s input, an ad hoc committee of students and university leaders organized a trip to visit peer institutions to compare their student activities centers to ours. In addition to Brajer, the group included Haven Hart, then dean of students; Gene Spivey, a trustee and alumnus; and Trevor Arrowood ’09, the SGA vice president. They visited Winthrop, UNC-Wilmington and the College of Charleston.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” says Arrowood. “Some schools that were smaller and older than us had better facilities. Our gym and recreation facilities were especially outdated.”
It was clear that CCU needed better recreation facilities and other amenities; other schools had them and prospective students expected them. But the timing was bad. A deep recession had begun, and colleges everywhere were slashing budgets. At CCU, however, at a time when other colleges around the state were cutting programs and jobs, the SGA came up with a plan that showed imagination, leadership and the truest kind of school spirit.
STICKING OUR NECKS OUT
“Money was limited and, with so few resources, we had the idea of raising student fees to help pay for a recreation center,” says Arrowood, who was running for the position of SGA president for the 2008-2009 academic year. It was a tricky proposition. Did the students want a state-of-the-art recreation center badly enough to strain their budgets (and their parents’ budgets) to pay for it? Even if the answer was yes, there was little chance they would enjoy the facility themselves, since such a large building project wouldn’t be completed until after they graduated. Would students be willing to make a sacrifice that would only benefit their successors?
In Fall 2007, SGA conducted a survey that found that 58 percent of students polled were receptive to the idea. Encouraged,
the SGA executive committee drafted legislation and submitted it to the SGA Senate, which passed it. The next step was a campuswide student referendum, which was placed on the ballot in the general election of SGA officers. Students overwhelmingly voted YES, and the proposal was sent to the board of trustees. At its February 2008 meeting, the board approved a $350 increase in student fees for the construction or renovation of structures that “will advance the interests of our academic programs, student affairs programs, our athletic programs and our alumni.”
From the beginning, students were involved in planning the project, to be called the student recreation and convocation center (insisting that “recreation” come first). The recreation center would be combined with a major, much-needed new playing facility for the Chanticleer men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams.
“It was very satisfying to sit in with the planners, architects and administrators,” says Arrowood. “Students were instrumental in all the planning decisions from seating and flooring to office spaces. We wanted a building that students could use 24/7. We wanted the best indoor running track and the best possible equipment. We stuck our necks out if we thought something was too much or not enough.”
Ground was broken for the 131,000-square-foot, $35 million center in April 2010. Although construction delays derailed early hopes that Chants basketball would play in it last season, everyone who attended the building’s grand opening on Aug. 20 agreed that the wait was worth it.
On opening day, 1,940 students visited the new facility, now officially named the HTC Center after the Conway-based communications cooperative made a $3.61 million bid for 20-year naming rights. By the end of the first week, according to Jody Davis, director of campus recreation, 8,145 “visits” had been recorded by the center’s biometric palm reader check-in devices. “That’s up from 3,301 visits from the same week in 2011,” says Davis. “Nearly triple.”
One of the new patrons is Eric Laganelli, a junior psychology major from Carlisle, Pa. “It beats the heck out of the old gym,” he says, referring to the university’s former student recreation facility in the Williams-Brice building. The contrast between its cramped, cinder-block rooms and the glass-walled, sun-filled spaciousness of the HTC Center is something returning students all note.
“I had a membership at a gym in town, but I’m coming here now,” says Tommy White, a Myrtle Beach sophomore majoring in exercise and sport science. “[The HTC Center] stays open later and fits in with my schedule.”
Laganelli says he uses most of the equipment the center offers, from the rowing machine to the weights to the indoor track (“It makes the miles go by fast”), and he and his friends have also made suggestions for new equipment. “The staff has been very receptive,” he says. “They got us a scale in two days.”
Bob Morgan, a staff fitness instructor, believes that the facility’s close proximity to the freshman residence halls is going to have a significant impact on first-year students’ fitness habits. In addition to the climbing wall and work-out equipment, the center’s healthy food kiosk is always busy. “Not as many students will be putting on that ‘Freshman Fifteen,’ ” he predicts.
Brajer and Arrowood both took part in cutting the ribbon at the grand opening. “It’s a great feeling to be here as an alumnus and think, ‘This is what we did,’ ” says Arrowood. “The state and the donors couldn’t do it, but we students took it in our own hands and put a building on campus.”
Another major new addition to the campus this fall is even more central to the student experience—the new Bryan Information Commons. A state-of-the-art study, reference and tutorial center, this 15,000-square-foot addition to Kimbel Library was funded through the student fee initiated by SGA in 2008. And the facility was designed with input from the students who will be using it.
The need for more space and more technology in the library had been a growing concern for some time. Trends in teaching and study—toward group projects based on electronic presentation—had changed the function and culture of university libraries. No longer a tomblike hall of enforced silence where individual students pored over books and periodicals, the library had become the buzzing nexus of campus life, with crowded tables of students whose course work depended on discussion and collaboration. To accommodate this new direction, library hours were lengthened, technology was upgraded, laptops and other equipment were offered for check-out, a coffee shop was installed, food was allowed—all a terrific strain on a building built in 1976 for a student population of 1,400. Kimbel Library Dean Barbara Burd reports that the building’s gate count reached 4,000 per day during the spring of 2012.
Ground was broken for the Bryan Information Commons—named in honor of the late CCU benefactor Rebecca Randall Bryan and her family—in October 2010. Student input through focus groups helped determine the shape and purpose of the building, favoring group setups, soft seating and open spaces. Later a Student Advisory Group was formed that sampled 15 types of chairs and a half-dozen styles of tables, and made suggestions about equipment and technology.
Their efforts have met the test. As with the HTC Center, the opening week at the Bryan Information Commons was memorable for its “wow” factor.
“It’s gorgeous,” says Justine Lindsted, a marine science junior from Hershey, Pa. “I have always used the library for studying. It was impossible to find a seat during finals week last year; we finally went upstairs and sat between the bookstacks.”
“We’re going to be here a lot,” says Brian Dix of Myrtle Beach, speaking for himself and three other members of his CBAD 470 class (group strategic management). He and his classmates were seated at one of the center’s new mediascape units—a wide worktable with large computer screens at each end; hookups allow students to project their laptop programs onto the screens. “This is the best place to get together, and the technology is going to help us a lot,” says Dix. “We won’t have to all huddle around one computer screen.”
Brian Schneider, another member of the group, appreciates the extra space the information commons provides. “Last year I used to get to the library at midnight and stay til 3 a.m. I couldn’t get a seat any earlier.”
The new facility was built directly in front of Kimbel Library; the two buildings are joined by a wide hallway with floor-to-ceiling windows. The passage connects past and present, 1976 to 2012, but it also creates a generous, continuous space that encompasses both buildings. This space is being put to use in ways that mark a new direction for Kimbel Library.
This fall, for the first time, the library sponsored an exhibit, “Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War,” and created a series of public events around it, including scholarly presentations and faculty panel discussions. It’s the beginning of an effort to make the library more of a vital exponent of ideas and culture on campus, according to Burd. In the future, the library will be sponsoring more events, exhibits and seminars, often highlighting student work jointly with other departments, which will raise the library’s profile on campus and in the community.
With the opening of the information commons, library staff placed suggestions boxes and comment boards in the new building to gauge student response and to gather ideas for improvement. Burd says she learned a new word when a student wrote, “It’s illish!” (That means it’s cool.)