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North Hills Monthly

Colleges Adding Amenities to Enrich Campus Life

Jul 31, 2016 08:12PM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen

La Roche College

From dorms that feature swimming pools and fitness rooms to special interest clubs, gourmet meals on-demand in the dining hall and school-sponsored adventures in the real world, college students today are getting more than just an education.

Nonacademic amenities have become almost as important to the college experience as the learning process itself, said Colleen Ruefle, La Roche College's dean of students and vice president for student life. During her past 27 years of working at the school, Ruefle has watched the McCandless college grow (current enrollment is approximately 1,500) to become one of the highest-ranked colleges in the Northeast. 

"Amenities help; when we opened the Kerr Fitness and Sports Center 20 years ago, it really changed the campus,” she explained. “It gave students a great place to relax and get together with friends and hang out because it's so much more than just a gym." 

Featuring a comfortable lobby, indoor running track, and a 1,000-seat gymnasium, the 45,000 sq. ft. facility has evolved along with students' needs. "We have to constantly maintain our facilities and keep up with what the trends are," said Ruefle, noting that the college is currently remodeling the center's weight room to accommodate students who want to do other exercises, such as yoga and Zumba. "Three years ago, we upgraded our athletic complex to remodel our grass field, because teams in high school are used to playing on artificial turf."

The days of shared bathrooms and impersonal dorms are over now that students have private or semi-private bathrooms and live suite-style or in townhouses that feel like homes. "When colleges build now, they build differently, and most dorms have done away with common bathrooms," said Ruefle, noting that today's dorms are apartment-style. "Now we call them Living/Learning Environments; they're not just for sleeping." 

According to Than Oo, director of student activities and Greek life at Thiel College in Greenville, PA, the current trend in college living is ‘themed housing.’ "If students have a certain cause that they feel strongly about, they put together themed housing,” he explained. “Students who live there share common interests and values. For instance, some theme houses might focus on environmental issues, an interest in sports, international languages or politics."

Another big change has taken place in the dining halls, including all-day access to meals and better quality food. La Roche's food service now has made-to-order meals every day and is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. instead of regularly scheduled mealtimes.

Thiel recently renovated its dining hall and hired a new chef who works with students to educate them about where their food comes from. "We do a fusion table, which highlights food you don't see in the area, and we're trying to incorporate more locally sourced, organically grown items," said Oo, adding that college dining services and farmers’ markets have started to work together. 

Like La Roche, Thiel's campus is in a suburban setting. "Our student activities program is designed to keep our students on campus, and our school functions like a community, so students have a sense of belonging; it's their second home," said Oo, noting that students who participate in Greek life at college generally perform better in academics while also getting community service experience to put on their resumes. 

Getting off-campus on occasion is also important, and most colleges offer a variety of trips. Students at Thiel get to participate in skiing, rafting, rock climbing, hiking and cultural overnight sojourns to nearby cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago and New York. 

In a small college atmosphere, it's easier for students to create specialty groups and clubs without any red tape. "In the past few years, students have started the rugby club, equestrian club, outdoors club, revitalized the college radio station (WXTC) and grown the Thiel College Marching Band to more than 100 participants," noted Oo, who adds that approximately 1,000 students are enrolled at the school.

College libraries have also changed with students' late-night study habits and offer later hours than they did in the past. "We used to have computer labs, but we find that most students come to college with their own computers, so they’re not labs anymore; they’re integrated everywhere on campus," said Ruefle, noting that even the furniture has changed to accommodate technology. "When we remodel, we buy furniture with USB ports attached so students can charge their laptops."

Affiliated with the Sisters of Divine Providence, La Roche offers Catholic prayer services, but the college's Campus Ministry also caters to students of other religious denominations with an interfaith prayer room. "We have a number of Muslim students, so we made a separate prayer room for them and an area where they can wash their feet, which is part of their prayer ritual. We also have connections with other local churches and people who will transport students to their services," said Ruefle, adding that Bible studies and community service are also part of the Campus Ministry.

La Roche College has more than 350 international students, so the school's International Student Services Office offers a conversation partner group for students who need practice speaking English. They also help foreign students learn how to manage banking, medical visits and shopping, and everyone at the school benefits.

"Many of our international students come from Saudi Arabia, and having a large population of Muslim students has been an educational experience for us," said Ruefle. "The Saudi students host Saudi Arabia Day and put on fashion shows; you get to know them personally, and it changes your perspective on what you hear on the news."

"We have a lot of exchange students from Korea," noted Oo, adding that the school has a host family program where international students spend time with local families. "They go on trips and have dinner together, and one of our host families even traveled to Korea. Another family plans to go to Japan."

Other countries are also represented at Thiel, and those students are treated to special programs to make sure that they're adjusting well to the community. In addition, leaders of area organizations partner with international students to take them on tours and help them with their studies.

No matter where their students are from, colleges today are taking amenities to a new level to make them feel right at home.

Accommodating Students with Special Needs

Most colleges offer accommodations and appropriate support for students who have disabilities and/or medical conditions.

"We have a whole office (Office of Accessibility Services) devoted to accessibility that we didn’t have 15 years ago," said Colleen Ruefle, La Roche College's dean of students and vice president for student life.

"Students who have special needs due to physical handicaps or limitations, and/or learning disabilities, receive attention and consideration to meet these needs from the admissions staff, administrative staff, faculty and support staff," she added. “If students need more time on tests, or have problems with distraction, or are hearing impaired, we can accommodate those needs."

La Roche also accommodates physically handicapped students, providing rooms equipped with handicapped support bars. The school also provides a single dorm room for students who come with additional medical equipment. "Some of our students are pursuing their degrees against all odds," noted Ruefle. 

Thiel College also makes sure that students with disabilities and special needs are comfortable on campus. "We do whatever we can to help our students," said Than Oo, director of student activities and Greek life. “For example, one of our students wanted to live in a themed house, but because his dad was in a wheelchair and couldn't visit him there, we offered to set up a handicapped-accessible house. He ultimately chose to live elsewhere, but we were prepared to make it happen."

Most colleges also offer on-campus mental health services usually including free counseling services to students. "The number of counseling staff at La Roche has grown over the years," said Ruefle, adding that college life can get overwhelming for some students.