CREATING A LIFE ON CAMPUS : With Student Dorms, CSUN Tries to Shed Image as a Commuter School

Steinberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

For Amy Larson, Cal State Northridge was an escape from the small-town atmosphere at the University of Redlands, the private school near San Bernardino that she attended as a freshman. She regarded the CSUN campus as a comfortable place where she could regroup before applying to UCLA. It was an easy commute from her parents' Simi Valley home.

"I thought of it as a transition school near home," Larson said. "You just think it's not in the same league as UCLA and USC."

It is this image of a "second tier" institution, a suburban commuter campus, that officials at CSUN hope to erase within a generation or two. They envision a community--like USC or UCLA--in which students flock to campus for major sporting and entertainment events, a school with a reputation for turning out well-rounded graduates and alumni who recall their CSUN days fondly as they send in their contributions.

University officials believe that students who live on campus can help turn those visions into traditions.

To that end, CSUN is quadrupling the number of accommodations available to students who want to live on campus; by 1990 there will be nearly 3,000 spots. And as the university works to transform its campus culture, officials have started to market its new image as a residential school.

Lifelong Allegiance

"Once you've been at SC, you're a Trojan the rest of your life," said Diana Gruendler, CSUN's director of housing services. "You love it, you support it, and that's wonderful.

"We are striving at CSUN to capture that same mentality, to cultivate and build that sense of spirit," she said. "It will influence future generations to come here. The sons and daughters of CSUN graduates will want to come here."

Residence halls have existed at CSUN for about 20 years, and there has been interest in constructing more for at least a decade. Of the university's nearly 30,000 students, about 1,400 live on campus. (At UCLA, 4,300 of the 34,650 students live on campus; at USC, it's 6,562 out of 27,086.) In the fall of 1990, when the new housing has been completed, about 10% of the Northridge student body will live on campus.

Last year, the university started to send information to incoming students and high school counselors throughout the state, detailing new residential opportunities at the school. Community college counselors were alerted, and college guides were revised. More campus tours were scheduled. Available for the fall semester are 2,100 residential spots, and there are 2,600 applications, Gruendler said.

Amy Larson, who is about to finish her second year at CSUN, has lived on campus since last summer. "I didn't want to live at home with my parents," she said. "I was tired of commuting, getting here and never having a place to park. Then always rushing to get home to beat the traffic. Now I can hang out and just talk to people.

"I wanted to be around other students," she said. "I didn't want to get an apartment off campus with adults who have nothing to do with college."

Although she has applied and been accepted to UCLA, Larson is staying put. "I ended up liking it so much," she said.

Larson lives in the new, three-story University Park apartments, one of three existing residential complexes. The terra-cotta stucco building, which houses 760 students, bears little resemblance to a traditional dormitory. Sunlight spills through large picture windows lining the hallways. The two-bedroom "deluxe" apartments are occupied by four students, each paying $3,255 for the school year--or $361 a month for nine months.

The cost is less in some of the older buildings--$2,520 for the nine-month school year.

Each of the new apartments has its own balcony. The units are furnished with butcher-block dining tables, chairs, couches, desks and lamps, all color-coordinated. Each apartment has its own bathroom.

Fully equipped kitchens, complete with stove, refrigerator and garbage disposal, are standard features, and most students use them. Fewer than one-third of the residents participate in the meal plan.

There is a small cafeteria with 13 tables in the Tower, the oldest of the three residence halls, and it is open to all live-in students. But at 6:30 one recent evening, only five people were feasting on that day's offering: barbecued ham or fish patties, with string beans, carrots or white rice.

"Nothing to write home about," freshman William Haul said as he polished off a plate of ham.

Most students who spend the $1,100 to participate in the meal plan each year eat at the Student Union, which is a few blocks south of the residence halls. The food is better there, and the selection is greater, students say.

During the 1987-88 school year, 672 students lived on the Northridge campus. That number more than doubled last fall, when the first of three new apartment complexes was completed, accommodating 760 more students.

Complete in 1990

Another complex, scheduled to open next fall, will house 750 students, and the final building, to be completed in 1990, will house 800.

A satellite Student Union, complete with a dining hall, game rooms and meeting areas, will also open in 1990 as part of the residential development.

When the final residence hall is completed, CSUN will have more on-campus housing than any of California's 18 other state colleges, administrators say.

"Three-thousand students is a lot of people to have in one area," Gruendler said. "That's the size of many private universities. And those students are not just affecting each other. They're affecting the whole campus."

In addition to the students in campus residence halls, 5,000 more students live in apartments within three miles of the school, administrators estimate.

They may not show up for dances at the dorms, but school officials say they take advantage of movie nights, theater productions, lectures and extended library hours.

"All of those things make for a campus community," Gruendler said. "All of it starts to pull together. When you think of UCLA, that becomes real apparent."

About 5,500 students live within a mile of the Westwood campus, either in private apartments or in fraternities and sororities, and they take advantage of what the community has to offer--everything from bookstores and movie theaters to restaurants and upscale night spots.

"It creates a collegiate atmosphere," Gruendler said. "I think that's what we'll start seeing in the Northridge area."

One of the driving forces behind CSUN's desire to change its commuter-college image is a conviction that universities must do more than prepare students for their chosen professions--that they must provide a well-rounded education grounded as much in human relations and social interaction as in literature and mathematical theory.

"We believe a university is much more than a series of experiences in class," said Edmund Peckham, CSUN's vice president for student affairs. "A student grows as a person as well as an intellect in a discipline."

Nationwide, increasing numbers of college freshmen are campus residents--49.9% in 1973 compared to 59.3% in 1988, according to UCLA's annual survey of college freshmen.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, living on campus was unpopular, college officials say. Students were protesting the Vietnam War and felt alienated from universities. They objected to the parental role assumed by dormitory staff and in many instances got more value for their money by renting private apartments off campus.

Much of that has changed. Dormitories have fewer rules and have improved services. Their prices are more competitive with private housing. "Now," Peckham said, "students feel much more a part of the university."

Several colleges in the state university system--including Cal State Los Angeles, Cal State Hayward and Cal State Fullerton--have opened residence halls for the first time in recent years.

"I think it has to do with the serious look at educational policy over the last decade," said Ruth Goldway, a spokeswoman for Cal State Los Angeles. Universities have been increasingly criticized for churning out graduates who have technical expertise but are lacking in general knowledge.

Students who live on campus are more likely to participate in school activities. That, in turn, "develops parts of the student other than their ability to be an accountant or engineer," Goldway said.

In arguing for more dormitories, college officials also cite studies showing that resident students tend to have higher grade point averages and are more likely to earn a bachelor's degree in four years than students who commute to class each day. In theory, that means colleges have to spend less time recruiting students to replace those who drop out.

"Philosophically, there is a bonding that takes place," Gruendler said. "Emotionally, there is a bonding that takes place. . . . It makes a student a better student."

Surveys on student achievement figured prominently in the decision to build residence halls at Cal State Los Angeles, which has a large minority population, Goldway said. Historically, minorities have lacked some academic advantages enjoyed by Anglo students.

Since 1985, residential units for 1,006 students have been constructed--the first ever on the urban campus east of downtown Los Angeles. Units to accommodate 1,000 more students are part of the master plan, but there is no timetable for their completion.

The residence halls at CSUN are part of a larger picture to enhance the reputation of the university.

Last year, CSUN President James Cleary announced that the school--previously in the NCAA's Division II--would join the ranks of major college athletics in Division I in all sports but football.

The new University Park apartments are part of a $150-million project that also includes an athletic stadium, performing arts center, entertainment center, hotel and restaurants--all in a cooperative venture between the school and Watt Industries, a private developer.

Profits from the commercial parts of the project will underwrite construction of university facilities.

"I love CSUN," sophomore Anthony Magee said. "I consider it to be a pilot school. I consider us to be trend-setters."

Magee, who has lived on campus since his first day at CSUN, wouldn't think of commuting to class.

"I feel that college should be an experience--not an experience where you get up from your own bed and own home to go to school," he said. "I feel that college should be similar to going to the Army. You go off to learn and come home to tell your family and friends about your experience."

The decision to build more residence halls, to become a different kind of campus, may be rooted in educational philosophy, but it is pragmatic as well.

"Alumni support is the bottom line," Gruendler said. "Students who experience and have been a part of the residential bonding process give back to the university," much as the alumni of Greek fraternities and sororities tend to support their alma mater, she said. "For a university like ours, that's major."

But the campus culture that administrators hope to create takes time to evolve. Eventually, officials say, athletic programs will enjoy more support as increasing numbers of students seek ways to occupy their time on weekends. Attendance at campus concerts, lectures and other off-hours events is also expected to jump.

Those CSUN students who live on campus seem to enjoy the stereotypical Southern California life style. In warm weather, they congregate by swimming pools, barbecue pits and volleyball courts at the residence halls. The lights outside stay on until 10 p.m.

"It is a community," senior Lesli Jones said. "Everyone who lives here knows each other."

Students describe it as "a family," and their sense of camaraderie was evident in recent student elections. A CSUN resident, Erik Blaine, ran for student body president, and Julie Rams, another resident, ran for vice president--the first time ever that campus residents had sought those positions.

They lost, but their campaign became a rallying point for other resident students. And it made commuters aware of a different group on campus, university officials said.

"So the issues were not just about where you're going to park," Gruendler said. "They were about the quality of life on campus, preservation of green space and security, round the clock."

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