ASU students say downtown good for classes, but . . .[i]
Ginger D. Richardson
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 17, 2006 12:00 AM
Students attending Arizona State University's newest campus love their academic environment but say their college experience isn't quite what they hoped because downtown Phoenix does not yet have all the amenities they want and need.
There is no grocery store within walking distance, and dining options are limited. Downtown is a maze of construction, with no grassy areas or parks.
"Everything closes so early down here," said Kaylin Hasselquist, an 18-year-old freshman nursing major. "I mean nothing is open."
As the downtown Phoenix campus wraps up its first semester, university leaders are redoubling their efforts to keep students happy because student retention ultimately will be one of the lasting measures of the new university's success.
A lot is at stake.
Phoenix is hoping that the campus will be an anchor for its downtown revitalization efforts, providing spinoff development in the form of new businesses and jobs. And ASU is counting on the campus to help it expand its system- wide enrollment and meet the state's ever-increasing higher education needs, which are being fueled by population growth and larger numbers of high school graduates going on to college.
University officials, who say they believe the downtown campus' inaugural term has been an overall success, have said they would like to see 90 to 95 percent of those students taking classes in Phoenix return for the spring semester. Enrollment topped 6,000 students during the fall.
ASU will not know until January whether it has reached that goal, but administrators already are making minor adjustments based on the feedback they have received during student forums.
"It's pretty clear and pretty consistent," said Mernoy Harrison, vice president and provost for the downtown campus. "They love the academics, but the amenities are lacking."
Not a college town
In many ways, students' frustrations come as no surprise to university leaders.
ASU and the city built the college in an area not known for nightlife or for even being student-friendly. Most fast-food places close mid- afternoon, and the restaurants that are open in the evening hours tend to be sit-down establishments that don't appeal to the college crowd.
But the university had hoped to combat the challenging downtown environment with a variety of campus-organized activities and the creation of a temporary student union at the Arizona Center, downtown's only outdoor shopping mall.
Some of the efforts were successful. The university worked out a student membership arrangement with the Lincoln Family YMCA on First Avenue, which has proven to be wildly popular.
Students also went on campus-run outings to downtown sporting events. They listened to Illinois senator and potential 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama speak at the Orpheum Theatre and took in Phoenix arts scene at the First Friday's art walk.
But the university was unable to open the student union as it had hoped, and many underclassmen said they passed a lot of post-dinner hours by simply hanging out in their dorm rooms.
The lack of entertainment appears to be a bigger problem for the underclassmen; those students who are over 21 say they've enjoyed attending class downtown.
"There's a lot of cool stuff within walking distance," 28-year-old Derrick Martinez said. "I think it would be cool to live downtown."
For the younger students, dining is also a challenge.
In Tempe, students can swipe their ASU-issued photo ID, or Sun Card, and pay for lunch or dinner through a meal plan at dozens of restaurants and coffeehouses on or off campus.
In downtown Phoenix, the choices are much more limited. Most students end up eating dinner at the cafeteria in the residence hall or at a cafe in the University Center, the campus' main academic building at Central Avenue and Taylor Street.
Many of downtown's fast-food restaurants close by 3 p.m.
Freshman nursing major Lucy Carfagno had the same dinner at the residence hall cafeteria every night: a chicken sandwich. She said the university needs to provide more dining choices.
Students also want a grocery store that they can walk to. Many say they have to stock up on supplies at a gas station/convenience store several blocks away.
What students do consistently rave about is their academic environment. They say they love the downtown campus' small class sizes, the personal attention they get from professors and staff, and the overall look and feel of the classrooms.
"The teachers have more time with us," said 18-year-old Denise Wilson, a freshman nursing major. "I go to mentoring, and they help you with your homework."
ASU says it has told its students to be patient, that some of the amenities that they want, such as a grocery store, will be built as downtown Phoenix continues to grow and develop.
But that's unlikely to happen much before fall 2008.
That is when ASU moves the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication to downtown and plans to have a 700-bed student housing complex up and running.
Both will result in more students downtown, which could spur business and retail development.
"One of the objectives that has not been reached is having the presence of students and faculty on the streets and sidewalks," Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said. "I am confident that will eventually happen."
Phoenix and ASU are still moving forward with plans to develop an outdoor civic space downtown and to remake Taylor Street, on the campus' north end, into a more pedestrian-friendly area.
Both initiatives would help beautify the downtown area, but they are also not expected to be in place before 2008.
"We're still in a building mode, and it's going to be a little disruptive for a while," ASU President Michael Crow said. "But eventually we're going to have a really great downtown neighborhood."
For now, the university needs to continually find ways to "engage" students in the downtown community, said Kevin Cook, vice provost and dean for student affairs. During the fall semester, ASU pushed its "First 100 days" initiative, which included trips to downtown plays and Arizona Diamondbacks games.
University leaders will do something similar in the spring semester, Cook said. They also plan to open their temporary student union by March, which would give students a place to hang out.
In addition, ASU also is trying to find ways to make it easier for the underclassmen, particularly those without cars, to attend events on the Tempe campus.
The university runs a daily shuttle service between downtown Phoenix and Tempe, but students have complained that its hours need to be extended beyond 10 p.m., particularly on the weekends.
ASU is considering the idea.
"We've definitely heard about that," Harrison said of the shuttle service hours. "If it is something that students feel would help their experience, we'll look at it."
Grading the effort
So, how do ASU administrators rate their own performance so far? Reasonably well, as it turns out.
"Overall, I'd give us a B-minus," Cook said. "I think we've provided everything that a student needs to be successful, but all of the student support things aren't yet in place.
"It's not like there's nothing. There is something. We're working to make it better."
Students, however, have a slightly different take.
"I think I'd have to give them two grades," Carfagno said. "I'd give them a B-minus too, as far as the classes and the buildings and all that stuff goes.
"But if we're including the campus, I'd say maybe a C-minus. Actually, probably a D, now that I think about it."