Orderly chaos at UMBC

Freshmen and their parents, burdened with electronics, clothing and creature comforts, learn dorm has no elevators

August 24, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Freshman move-in officially began at 9 a.m. yesterday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But Karin Readel, a faculty member who has supervised seven of these things, knew to show up early.

"Will they wait until 9?" she asked. "Nooooo."

Sure enough, at 8:20 a.m., families began arriving at UMBC's Patapsco Hall in their minivans and SUVs stuffed with suitcases, computers, flat-panel TVs, toilet paper, bedding supplies, refrigerators and cases of bottled water.

Readel, a senior lecturer in the geography department, stood in the center of it all. She has been the faculty mentor at Patapsco Hall for seven years, meaning she has weekly office hours at the dorm, takes students to plays and cultural events, and counsels them when they miss home or are going through a breakup. Last year, she was a judge in the dorm's singing contest, Patapsco Idol.

But yesterday, as about 260 freshmen moved into Readel's dorm, she was the calm in the center of a storm of parents, siblings, students and futons. The questions came from all corners: Is the bursar's office open? Where are the best bike trails? What happens if a student doesn't have a meningitis vaccination?

And most important: Where are the elevators?

"There are no elevators," Readel said, more than once, to crestfallen parents. But the university hired movers to help students with the heaviest items, and upperclassmen volunteers were also on hand.

Patapsco Hall is a four-story, red brick dorm that is among UMBC's oldest. It opened in 1972, six years after the university was founded, and is in the traditional dorm style: long hallways with two-person rooms on each side and shared bathrooms. In an era of fancy, specialty dorms- and UMBC has those, too, with apartment-style living and floors for scholars or athletes - Patapsco is proudly old-fashioned.

There are the art kids and the computer science majors, who sit together in the large lobby and work on linear algebra problems. Gay and lesbian students feel welcome, and a diversity of races is represented.

As UMBC has developed its reputation in Maryland and across the country, the university has become more residential. This year, about 75 percent of the 1,400 freshmen will live on campus.

"I wanted to live here - to get out and meet new people," said Ziggy Pyzik, 18, from Westminster. He and his mom, Anne Pyzik, had unloaded his stuff onto the grass in front of the dorm and were taking a breather before attempting the stairs.

"It's always hard," she said, even though Ziggy is her fourth to go to college.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III said the school has been transformed in the past 20 years from one that was mostly commuter students to one that is largely residential. He said that's important, especially as the university recruits from around the United States and overseas.

"It builds campus life," he said of students living on campus. "It gives them a chance to have a richer undergraduate experience. They get to know people from all over the world - not just to be in class with them, but to live with them."

To make the campus more appealing to residential students and their parents, UMBC has created green space between buildings where there was once concrete, planted trees and worked on landscaping. "This is a place that has gotten increasingly attractive as the trees have gotten bigger," Hrabowski said.

Seth Behrick, 18, who was moving into Patapsco Hall yesterday, said he hoped to stay on campus most weekends instead of returning home to Aberdeen.

"I heard it was a really good school," said Behrick, a mechanical engineering major. "I came to orientation and was really impressed with what I saw."

Last year, Readel went so far as to bring her spinning wheel to teach students to spin wool. It's clear she thinks of the dorm's 340 residents as a second family after her husband and dog in Carroll County.

"The real purpose is to put faculty members in a place that's more traditionally student space, so they see the campus boundaries breaking down a little bit," she said. "I have been here long enough that I have this sense of ownership here."

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