Tacoma campus faces shift in culture as it adjusts to freshmen

TACOMA - The University of Washington, Tacoma, wasn't built for freshmen.

The 10-year-old campus doesn't have dorms, library study rooms or a cafeteria to buy cheap coffee and sit for hours, working on a class project.

"The designers of the campus assumed that everything the students would care about was, 'Where's the parking?' and 'Where's my classroom?' " chancellor Patricia Spakes said. "We believe there's more to college than that."

The average students before this school year were 28-year-old juniors and seniors, with jobs and family obligations and little extra time. They had the money to buy their coffee at Starbucks. They studied at home.

The 187 mostly 18-year-old freshmen who enrolled at the school last fall are looking for more than credits. They're looking for a whole college life.

Like all freshmen, they're struggling to make the transition from high school to college. They need to bond with their professors and each other to be happy and succeed. They mostly commute from their parents' homes and stay on campus long hours.

"Transferring from high school and going to a school that wasn't really freshmen-oriented, it's a little harder to begin the transition," said 19-year-old Kandis Bray, who went to Rogers High School in Puyallup. "But I also enjoyed the transition of becoming an adult a little quicker than I would have on another campus."

Scholarship student

Bray works full time at a coffee shop downtown and rents a house near Sixth Avenue. She chose UWT over Western Washington University or the UW's Seattle campus because she got scholarship money from Tacoma and could stay closer to her family.

She's made friends in her classes, and they find places to hang out on campus.

But she'd like to have a cafeteria and the option to live in a dorm.

Spakes knows.

"We have to make a major philosophical change," Spakes said. "We're working on it."

School officials are rethinking their master plan, questioning whether they need cheap student housing on campus, and tennis or basketball courts.

They're looking to expand library hours.

They've added a workout room and are turning the Longshoremen's hall on Market and South 17th streets into a gathering spot where students can bring a sandwich and study. They're hiring someone to help freshmen find housing in the community and resolve landlord-tenant disputes.

"How do you create community on a commuting campus?" Spakes said. "I think that is the $64,000 question for every commuting campus in the country."

Juniors and seniors

The UWT started in 1990, and that year it served 176 juniors and seniors who were transferring from community college or returning to college later in life. Over the years, the school added graduate programs. The culture of the now 2,250-student campus was built with those more mature scholars in mind.

When administrators learned in 2005 that they'd admit freshmen in the fall of 2006, they started planning how to teach them.

"When we don't provide the appropriate kinds of support, we lose them," Spakes said.

They founder because they don't know what to expect, they have poor study skills, they don't bond with other students and they don't interact with professors outside class. Research shows that if students have friends in their classes, they'll learn more and remember those lessons longer.

The chancellor said she urged a "learning community" model in which students are linked into groups and take classes together. The Seattle campus does a version of the model in which freshmen take all of their classes together for their first quarter.

Tacoma decided to keep their freshmen together for most of their classes all year.

The 187 freshmen were placed in four groups, each of which sticks together for most of the students' classes.

"It creates college feeling," said Beth Kalikoff, associate vice chancellor of academic affairs, "because you don't have late-night talks in the dorms."

'Core classes'

Most of those "core classes" are taught by two professors from different disciplines. The classes are small - a ratio of 25 or 27 students to each professor.

One Monday this month, one of the groups was in a 10-credit core class called "Everybody Eats," co-taught by a politics professor and an ecology professor.

Students had just read "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" and were questioning and debating. Is it better to know everything about the foods we eat, or be blissfully ignorant? Should farmers get subsidies? Should laws protect animals?

They laughed about one student's idea to survive on only desert cactus and vitamins.

They've bonded.

The first quarter, they wore name tags in the classes they took together. By February, they asked professors if they could have a Valentine's Day party.

Someone made cookies. One student brought little cards for everyone. Sam Barker, who's in a science and technology core group, said he likes that the school is so small that he can walk right up to professors and ask questions, even if he hasn't been in one of their classes.

"It's not like I'm sitting in Kane Hall with 450 people, and I'm a dot," he said, referring to the Seattle campus facility.


Students aren't without complaints. Some say there's not enough to do on campus. Others would rather be in a different core group than the one they were assigned.

The risk of the "learning community" model is that the students will "hyper bond" and not reach out to anyone other than their group.

That hasn't happened with 19-year-old Curry McFadden.

He said he's taken two elective classes so far - "International Interactions" and "War and Empire in the Middle East" - where he's liked meeting people who are older and further along in their education.

McFadden also said he thinks that living with his parents means he avoids some of the temptations of dorms, like going to too many parties.