UMBC shows lighter side

Mission: University hopes to attract new students to its campus with its new student center, The Commons.

January 30, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When Aamir Nooruddin first arrived at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a freshman five years ago, it was a sleepy commuter school - where earnest students turned out for class and just as quickly went home, leaving the campus deserted after hours.

"Now, students stay here on weekends," said Nooruddin as he lounged in an overstuffed armchair beside a huge fireplace in the Commons, UMBC's new student center. "The mentality's changed," added the information systems graduate student and resident adviser.

UMBC's transformation from a no-frills, largely non-residential school on Baltimore's suburban fringe to a traditional college has been under way for several years. But it took a leap forward with this week's opening of the Commons, a $35 million center designed to draw students together and give them a place to unwind.

As a message scrawled on a bulletin board in one of the center's 10 meeting rooms put it: "Wow! This finally feels like a real college."

That was just the reaction UMBC administrators were hoping for with the new three-story building, which was paid for through student fees. Established in 1966 to provide a Baltimore-area branch of the state university system, UMBC has built a solid reputation for its undergraduate research programs and its success with minority science students, among other things.

For years, though, something was missing. With most of its students living off campus, and without trappings such as a football team or age-old school traditions, UMBC struggled to develop a college spirit to call its own.

The school could celebrate its national champion chess team, but it's hard to rally a campus around checks and gambits. UMBC's unglamorous name and location also didn't help - carved out of the Catonsville woods at the crook of Interstates 95 and 695, and ringed by a car-lined rotary, the campus resembles a research park or an army base more than a typical college.

Now, students say, things are changing. With a new dormitory being built every year, UMBC houses 75 percent of its freshmen on campus. In all, 3,200 of its 7,500 full-time undergraduates live on campus, up from 850 in 1991.

The school may still lack a football team, but it does have a new logo for its sports teams (called the Retrievers), and students are starting to go to basketball games, although they still have to be reminded about games by fliers posted around campus.

Crowning it all is the Commons, a 4,000-capacity building in the heart of campus that is triple the size of the previous student center, so large and light-filled that its main hall could be mistaken for an airport concourse. Its three floors include an upscale dining room, dozens of student activities offices, a cabaret that will offer near-nightly events, and a game room filled with pool tables, video games and large-screen televisions.

Other colleges are also adding such features to respond to the demands of students. The difference at UMBC is that the student center has the full endorsement of an administration eager to cultivate its students' lighter side: At the Commons' grand opening Monday, students were showered with yellow foam balls that said "Have Fun!"

"This is a university commons for the whole community," President Freeman A. Hrabowski III declared at the opening. "We've been talking about building this for a long time."

Former U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings, a member of the university system's Board of Regents in attendance for the ribbon-cutting, compared the building's importance to the 1930s acquisition of the College Park land that became the University of Maryland. "This is going to make it a real university," he said.

Students swarmed the Commons, wide-eyed as kids who have been given a new recreation room as a reward for a good report card. They soaked in the sunlight that poured through two-story-tall glass walls into the food court (which includes a grill area complete with a bank of TVs), played pool in the game room (the chess tables sat unused), and decorated the student club offices upstairs.

"For pure entertainment, it's perfect. There are more TVs, more room for live bands, definitely more interaction," said Alba Wayal, a junior biology major from Rockville. "This is college - it's not supposed to be that serious. People here are really intellectual and academically driven. This is going to change everything."

Some students, though, doubted that the Commons would fundamentally alter UMBC's reputation for unfrivolous, focused students - several celebrated the Commons opening this week by hunching over their laptop to plug into the building's wireless network.

UMBC has strict alcohol policies, and a lackluster party scene, noted some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity who were hanging out in the food court.

Still, the fraternity members say, a livelier campus could help UMBC retain students that may otherwise leave for more traditional schools like College Park. "It's a better environment. It will make people happier," said Joe Land, a senior computer science major from Laurel.

That's the idea, said Charles Fey, UMBC's vice president for student affairs. The school doesn't want to change its students - just keep them around campus longer.

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