Sociologists who study human behavior patterns are calling them the Millennials—the Americans born between 1980 and 1995. They are a generation of technically savvy, multicultural multitaskers who can field an e-mail, talk on the phone, and listen to music all at the same time. Collectively, they have a strong sense of purpose and display high levels of trust and optimism. They are team-oriented and used to group learning and interacting with peers using social networks. This new type of student studies hard, avoids risk, and feels the pressure to excel. And these students aren’t just connected to their friends—they are calling their parents after their tests and to check-in between classes.
University administrators are keenly interested in how technological ubiquity and changing ways of social interaction have altered how this new generation of students live and learn best. Now, as the University becomes more market-driven and sees itself competing with other schools in the West for top students, it has to look at updating its facilities and shaping campus life to reflect the needs and desires of this Millennial generation.
“We can sit around and lament all we want about how students have changed, or we can have an understanding of how these students thrive and program our spaces to them,” said Robin Holmes, vice president for student affairs.
A consortium of groups spearheaded by the student affairs office has banded together to propose a vital reenvisioning of University facilities that shape the student experience. The group is calling the proposal “Oregon 2020,” a plan for reshaping student spaces to reflect how these new students learn, socialize, and prosper.
For the past year, Holmes has been presenting the rough details of this visionary proposal—one that should transform the UO campus into a space tailored to the twenty-first-century student—to University audiences, to the Eugene community, and at other U.S. universities. In the many times that she has laid out the proposal’s framework, her audiences always react the same. First, there is a moment of silence as smiles spread wide across faces. Then, a sheer electrical rush of a murmuring crowd floods the room—the real human energy that turns messages into buzz, buzz into support, and support into real change. Then, her audiences do something even more exciting: They ask how they can help.
Holmes, who has been instrumental in putting together “Oregon 2020,” is convinced the University is on the far end of a Goldilocks equation—it is in a sweet spot, just the right size to be classified as a Research I university and to provide the kind of small-community atmosphere many students thrive in.
“If you ask an eighteen-year-old why they choose a certain college over another, it’s all about the student experience,” Holmes says. “We already have a great student experience at this University. What we want now is to offer the best student experience possible,” she adds.
The time has never been better for the UO to embark on such an ambitious project. California’s recent budget crisis, which sent shockwaves through its higher education system, has created a great opportunity for the University of Oregon to attract many of the best students on the West Coast. Just in the past few years, the UO’s out-of-state population has grown from 38 percent to 42 percent, and projections show that figure increasing to 45 percent over the next ten years.
“Out-of-state students help pay to educate Oregonians,” explains Jim Bean, UO senior vice president and provost.
Renovation and reconstruction of the Erb Memorial Union is the centerpiece of the Oregon 2020 proposal. The EMU has always been what outgoing EMU director Charles “Dusty” Miller calls a “working union”—not just an iconic gathering spot or a retail space, but a building where students can run student groups and clubs and feel they are an active part of a community.
“Every group of students has its own way of using the building,” says Miller. “Students today need round-the-clock access, spaces where they can meet to study, and inviting spaces.”
The last EMU renovation took place in 1974 and was planned to accommodate 14,000 students, far fewer than the current student population of almost 22,000.
Form will follow function for the new EMU renovation efforts, which will likely focus on construction of
- a large-scale performance hall, which could host the Oregon Bach Festival and other major concerts
- spaces tailor-made to suit the needs of student groups and clubs
- a sustainability center, where students will learn about green living and steer sustainable projects for the community
- a conference facility that can accommodate sizeable academic and professional meetings
Millennials know more about how to stay healthy than any previous generation and see exercise as a natural part of the college experience. Plans for the new Rec Center call for a standalone swimming facility, additional gym and workout spaces, and improved locker facilities.
“We really need these buildings to have a sense of Wow,” Holmes says. “We want to add attractions and amenities that will invite students and faculty and staff members back to campus after 5:00 p.m.”
“Oregon 2020” also calls for the renovation of every one of the University’s residence halls and the creation of new ones to accommodate even more students on campus.
A start on this initiative is already well on its way. The University recently secured $75 million in bonds to build its newest residence hall, a living-learning center conceived to create an immersion learning experience something like students have when they study abroad. Situated in east campus where the Bean parking lot is now, the proposed hall will have 450 beds, five state-of-the-art, high-tech classrooms, and a resident scholar apartment where a tenured faculty member will live and teach. Students will also have access to a library commons with a full-time media librarian on the premises. The project is slated for completion in 2012.
“Much of Oregon 2020 is just a proposal, but something along these lines is very important to this University,” Bean says.
If the University does change these visions into real spaces, the next decade could see the UO emerge as a first-choice school more often among a generation of active, engaged, talented, and optimistic students—and this space race will be one that the University of Oregon has won.
—By Emily Grosvenor