Growing Pains at UW Tacoma
UW Tacoma feels increasing student involvement and need for more student services
by Jenna Luthy
When young, university-bound hopefuls envision the college experience, it is safe to say their expectations conform to a general formula. Sure, they expect a dorm room, a meal plan and somewhere to hang out and study — but above all, they seek the resources that allow them to socialize with their peers.
If someone had stepped foot onto UW Tacoma when it opened 18 years ago, they may not have initially realized it was even a university. Visitors may have expected to see 20-something students lugging around backpacks, sticking around for hours to chat about homework over coffee, like they do today. Instead, older students roamed the campus, coming to class straight from their nine-to-five jobs. There were no Husky Hangout events, where students socialize during lunch hour, or a student store where they could grab a snack between classes. There was definitely no need to hang around after class; most students had families to get home to.
Jo Enscoe, associate director of Student Planning and Administration, was a student at UW Tacoma in 2000 and explains that, while the small class sizes and low tuition rates (compared to other area universities) were attractive to students, the traditional experience that college is expected to provide was seriously lacking. Prior to her current job, Enscoe was the manager of Student Life for eight years and has seen the campus evolve immensely since.
“When I first came here, the Student Life office had been vacated for over a year and a half, so there were different people fulfilling small functions, but there wasn’t a whole lot of student life going on,” says Enscoe.
Through the early 1990s to 2007, the university was what Enscoe refers to as a “2+2” campus, meaning students took two years of community college followed by two years at UW Tacoma. Students then were generally “non-traditional,” and usually had a full-time job or a family, or were considerably older. The average age on campus in 2000 was 32.9.
Student Activities Board (SAB), a student-led organization at UW Tacoma, took root in 2005. SAB is responsible for hosting, planning and sponsoring a variety of cultural, entertainment and social issue-oriented events throughout the school year. But student life didn’t begin to thrive until the 2006-2007 school year, when the first freshman class arrived on campus. According to Jennifer Campbell, chair of SAB’s Diversity and Intercultural Awareness Committee, transitioning to a four-year university has made it less of a challenge to get students involved.
“Since the freshman class came to campus, there’s actually a student presence at places like the ‘oUWT post’ [a student lounge in the Mattress Factory], students are still hanging out at 6 o’clock at night. It’s much more ‘college-y,’ ” says Campbell.
While getting the freshman class to UW Tacoma was a step in the right direction for student involvement, the road ahead will provide many challenges for the university. Since UW Tacoma is a relatively young campus, faculty and student leaders are still learning the best methods for implementing effective activities for both traditional and non-traditional students.
According to Enscoe, SAB had to reconsider the types of activities they planned once the first freshmen arrived. The age gap between students on campus created a dilemma for activity planners in selecting appropriate events for students of different age groups. Finding the right balance in programming, however, was the real challenge, because what attracts an 18-year-old is much different than what attracts older students.
Although student involvement at UW Tacoma has come a long way in recent years, there is still much room for growth. Responding to the 2009 Winter Assessment of Student Experience survey conducted by UW Tacoma’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning, students expressed a strong desire for additional services that most four-year universities provide. The top-ranking requests were: on-campus health services, a student union building, housing and recreational programs.
“All of our events are planned in an attempt to increase student involvement, and it’s a difficult thing because almost no one lives here,” explains Campbell. “So it’s hard to get people to stay or come back for an event. When we plan our events, we try to plan them at times students are already here, or make it so awesome that they’ll want to come back.”
In general, on-campus activities have an average turn-out of about 60 students, which is relatively small compared to the 2,965 students enrolled as of autumn 2008. Despite the low attendance at events, student leaders are hopeful regarding changes in the next few years. According to Campbell, the 20 students who live in the university’s first on-campus housing site, Court 17, are extremely active in student life activities and attend nearly all events.
Getting students to campus and encouraging them to stay has proven to be the key for increasing participation in student life activities. SAB’s funding, however, depends on student attendance at events, making it difficult for the organization to host as many activities as the board would like.
While new applications from transfer students and incoming freshman continue to roll in, the university’s Master Plan to expand the campus has become more crucial than ever. One major change ahead: a student health services center is scheduled to debut in autumn 2009. Though progress is inching forward, the current economic crisis has forced some issues to the back burner, such as expanding student housing and building a student union.
“I’d say we’re in the pre-planning stages, due to the current financial position of the state,” Enscoe says. “The hope is we can get this in the next few bienniums because the students want it. The thing is, it’s going to come down to finances and how fast the state recovers, so we’re taking this one piece at a time.”
As the campus continues to expand and grow as a community, no doubt student interest in campus life and activities will grow alongside. As this evolution takes place, one can certainly expect to see significant changes in student life, amenities and participation in the years to come.
Copyright 2009 University of Washington Tacoma
Office of Advancement