More Than Food at the Student Union

Colleges hope new multifunctional centers will promote campus unity, attract applicants

The new student union at George Mason University here initially feels a lot like an upscale shopping mall.

Windows around the perimeter of the three-story ceiling spill light onto the spacious esplanade below. Every amenity is available, from a wide choice of food options to computers with Internet access to a convenience store. The 30,000-square-foot building also boasts a 310-seat theater, a bistro, a bank and credit union, and a computer store.

But the offerings go well beyond entertainment. A number of students chat and study at metal cafe tables in the center of a colorful food court. Others lounge in stuffed chairs in an open library space. Computer labs and meeting rooms dot the structure.

Like many other colleges and universities across the country, GMU had a specific goal in mind in building its jewel-studded, $30-million social center: improving community life.

At a time when everything from the Internet to racial divides have isolated undergraduates, many colleges see better student unions as an effective tool to strengthen ties within a disparate student body. And as competition for students has tightened over the last decade, "real-life" services on campus can be a strong drawing point for applicants.

Many institutions are striving for this normalcy, says Tom Birdsey, an Albany architect with EYP Architects, which specializes in campus work.

"I hear about projects all the time that are intended to make residential life more like real life," he says. "That's why we are seeing things that look more like malls. There's a tremendous trend to get services closer to students and give them what they expect."

Each school zeroes in on its demographics and social needs, usually including students in the design process, Mr. Birdsey says. "What we've found to be most successful is to think hard about what the kids like, and it does vary from school to school."

The town green

This doesn't always mean a large building. Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., for example, is supplementing a student center with specialized buildings to create a town-green effect, he says.

At Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, the need was for a real social center, something that didn't emphasize studies.

"We tracked why admitted students went elsewhere, and we consistently scored low on non-academic facilities and quality of life outside of the classroom," says Pat Keating, chief financial officer for the university. "We really wanted a community center, a place to go and interact and be seen."

At George Mason, senior Ray Hummel gives tours to prospective students and attests to the enthusiasm for the center. "It's definitely a draw," he says. "The students are pretty quiet, but the parents are really excited. They want to know what's available for the kids to use."

Mr. Hummel has plenty to show them. In addition to all the conveniences of a mall, students have easy access to the academic departments housed in what the center's director prefers to call the "university learning center."

Combining academics with socializing encourages an easier rapport between the students and faculty, says John O'Connor, director of the center's programs and a new experiential learning program the university developed along with the building.

"An important thing going on is to integrate learning. It brings together all the parts of student life. While having food in the library is blasphemous for some, to us it is a better example of how we live."

Student 'Balkanization'

The new building is an effort to respond to the need for additional library space and for enhanced university life.

"There was a sense of lack of community, particularly with our very culturally diverse student body," says Mr. O'Connor. "There was a tendency to be Balkanized - this area is for fraternities, this space is for ROTC, and this part of the library is for the Asians.... With the more open, bigger space ... they are coming more in contact. To the extent that you are seeing someone unlike yourself ... there is implicit learning...."

Some students say that the center is serving this purpose in a very practical way.

"There is racial integration. You see a lot of people here talking and socializing," says Ali Nassiry, a second-year pre-medical student. "My freshman year, the groups were more separate."

For Mr. Nassiry and his other commuting friends - who comprise 80 percent of GMU's student body - the center also serves as a home base. Now when Nassiry arrives at 7:30 a.m., he can settle into a study area with other pre-med students and come back throughout the day for meals or to complete an assignment.

At Carnegie Mellon, Mr. Keating says that the $47-million center, which has about a dozen outlets of Pittsburgh restaurants, a gym and pool, a new chapel and auditorium, and the campus bookstore, is very successful.

"It's constantly crowded. It's served its purpose very quickly," he says. "We wondered where all these people were before the building was constructed."

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