At 'Geek Heaven,' students are skilled in tech, if not talk

On a rainy Saturday, Cameron Dolansky put on a metal-studded leather vest and a red tunic and headed to Neumont University's most raging weekend party.

It wasn't your usual college kegger. A dozen students sat in a classroom frantically trying to kill the zombies racing across their computer screens. A few more jammed to Rock Band, their musician avatars displayed on two projector screens. Cans of Mountain Dew and fast-food wrappers littered the darkened room.

"Back in high school, I was the lone geek," said Dolansky, who earned a rep on campus after he and his roommate played Rock Band for 72 hours straight. "Now I'm surrounded by geeks."

Spread over two floors in a suburban office park south of Salt Lake City, Neumont University is devoted to pumping out a steady stream of experts in computer science -- the only major that students can choose. The 6-year-old school places its graduates in high-tech jobs at such companies as EBay Inc., Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. If trends hold up, more than 90% of the 59 students graduating with bachelor's degrees today will find work within three months.

But surrounding introverted computer programmers with other introverted computer programmers creates unique challenges for school administrators. Employers praise the skills of Neumont's graduates but complain about their computer addictions and difficulty socializing with colleagues. For their part, some students grumble that their peers spend too much time playing video games and too little time in the shower.

So in addition to the intricacies of computer science, Neumont is trying to teach its students how to get along better in the real world. Administrators forced them to close their laptops in class, established social clubs and required them to take courses in interpersonal communications and public speaking.

The efforts have met resistance. After all, students ask, what's the purpose of attending a place known affectionately as "Geek Heaven" if you're not free to geek out whenever you choose?

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One impediment to organizing student parties at Neumont is the lack of dormitories; students live off-campus. Another is a major shortage of women, whose ranks the school is trying to increase.

Cameron Murray, a leather jacket-wearing 20-year-old from Cleveland, estimates that the gender ratio is one woman in a billion (it's actually 1 in 20). What's more, he complains, the women at Neumont "are more like dudes with long hair," which hurts the dating scene.

Eager to flirt, he and eight other members of a student group known as the Gentlemen's Order moseyed down to a mall recently and split into teams to see who could get the most phone numbers from women. The eager Lotharios wandered from food court to department store and back again, spending an afternoon in search of potential dates.

The sum total of their efforts: a single number.

"We got shot down as hell -- it was horrible," Murray said.

The Gentlemen's Order is one of five social clubs launched in September. Administrators refer to the orders as fraternities without the alcohol.

"We know that forming relationships outside of the classroom is an important part of the college experience," Neumont President Edward Levine said.

The orders still tend toward the geeky. There's Game Shark Order, for students who like video games, and Beyond the Screen, for those who enjoy tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons.

The Gentlemen's Order is an outlier. Murray says he created it to show students how to attract women and have a good time.

"I don't think anybody has enough fun at Neumont -- it's a bunch of people addicted to sitting in their mom's basement playing World of Warcraft and drinking Dr Peppers," said Murray, who himself was drinking a can of Dr Pepper at 8 a.m. on a Friday.

He might have a point. Instead of Mardi Gras, students hold Nerdi Gras, a video game party featuring "nothing that would ever happen at Mardi Gras," according to organizer Keith McIff. And though the student commons doesn't have couches or fast food (or for that matter, any hot food at all), it does have a "Star Trek" pinball machine, a pingpong table and a flat-screen TV frequently hooked up to Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

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Some of Neumont's female students, who make up about 5% of the 266 enrolled this year, are on a mission to get their peers to tune in to the world around them. In October, one posted a message on Neumont's Web forums protesting what she called "offensive odors."

"The truth is there are people in this school who just don't smell pleasant at all," she wrote.

The post generated more than a dozen replies, with students suggesting the creation of a personal-hygiene company, a crackdown on halitosis, and a three-shower-a-day regimen.

"People (who probably just get busy and distracted by their passion for coding) need to remember to take care of themselves as well as they care for their machines," Stacy Hughes, the school's communications manager, wrote on the forum.

It shouldn't be a surprise that Neumont students spend so much time in front of their computers. The school's mission is to teach students how to be valuable computer programmers in just 2 1/2 years. The for-profit university was established in 2003 under the name Northface University and changed in 2005 to Neumont, or New Mountain, likewise an allusion to climbing a difficult peak.

For $28,800 tuition, students attend eight hours a day, five days a week, year-round with a few weeks off. The school attracts people who don't mind the grueling schedule, the accelerated format or the fact that everyone lives off-campus.

"It ended up being kind of a Hogwarts environment where everyone ends up saying, 'Everyone here is like me,' " said Graham Doxey, one of Neumont's three founders and its president until late 2007, referring to Harry Potter's school.

When the students graduate, though, they will need to know how to socialize with people who aren't like them, which is why students are required to take three classes about communicating with others.

During a lecture for Collaborative and Interpersonal Communications I, students leaned back in their chairs while instructor Paul Parkin moved around the room to hold their waning interest. Cars snaked by on the highway outside the window below snow-covered mountains.

"My goal is to heighten your awareness so you have the skills necessary to not carry germs into your relationships," Parkin said.

Two guys wearing aviator sunglasses mumbled to each other, ignoring the lecture, while a few students dressed in Dungeons & Dragons T-shirts took notes.

"You have to look up from your computer screens from time to time," Parkin told them. "This will also help you if you're in a relationship."

"We don't have many of those," a student retorted. The classroom erupted into raucous laughter.

This kind of mocking and even flat-out resistance is a common response to Neumont's efforts to entice students out of their computer-aided comfort zones. That includes the "Laptops Up" policy, introduced last month, which mandates that students close their computers in class at their instructors' request.

Hughes, the communications director, said the school adopted the policy after employers reported that though Neumont grads were good at programming, they were too distracted by their notebook computers during meetings.

Neumont students reacted to Laptops Up in the same way students on other campuses might react to a crackdown on alcohol: with rage.

"War Is Peace/Freedom Is Slavery/Ignorance Is Strength/Laptops Up Is Laptops Down" reads a sticker distributed on campus by Joshua Boston, an 18-year-old Florida native who was wearing computer wires as bracelets and welding goggles.

But even Boston conceded that something needed to be done to stir students out of their torpor. He once tried to organize a movie outing, he said, but his friends bailed because they preferred to stage a raid in the computer game World of Warcraft.

"There are skills we need beyond grunting over our laptops," Boston said.

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Hanging out in the typical college sense -- beer bashes, football games -- doesn't appeal to many at Neumont, said Sam Lippert, a 19-year-old student from Duluth, Minn. He was attending the Saturday afternoon video game party because he said he was bored. "The social scene has never really been my thing," he said.

Greg Whelan, a prospective student visiting from Seneca, Ore., said he liked the idea that everyone at the school was interested in the same thing. "I don't mind geeks," he said.

There's another reason Neumont students don't socialize much: They work really hard, taking a hefty helping of such courses as Algorithms and Data Structures I, Software Engineering Methodologies, and Applications of Human Computer Interface Design.

"I might be missing a whole laid-back year of college," said Christina Dessi, a 19-year-old from Eastham, Mass. "But my friends at other colleges might not be able to get a job."

Dolansky, the Rock Band-playing tunic wearer, said that although he envies the wild college experience and worry-free summers his friends at other schools are experiencing, he knows they're jealous that most grads from his school land jobs when they're only 20.

Plus he can be himself at Neumont, he said, pulling his cellphone from a leather pouch to field a call. No one will mock him because he loves Dagorhir, a role-playing game inspired by "The Lord of the Rings" in which he dresses up in period clothing and fights opponents with foam swords.

"Here," he said, "I feel at home."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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