The first time UNF senior Ashley Harris pulled up to Osprey Fountains, she felt like she was at a fancy resort. Although she doesn't live in the newest residence hall, which opened this past fall, she has friends who do - and she admits she's a bit envious of their plush surroundings.
"I wish that Osprey Fountains had opened when I was a freshman," she said. "I would definitely have lived there for my first few years at UNF." For students who live at the Fountains, life is good. It's the first residence hall on campus to have a swimming pool - and a constantly flowing lazy river, which is probably its most talked-about amenity. What better place to tackle textbooks or hang out with friends than in the shade of a bright-colored umbrella while sipping a soda poolside?
"There's a comfortable study area where I can grab a burger after studying by the pool for a while," said resident Casey Deviese, a sophomore from Fernandina. "Another thing I love about the Fountains is that it's like an apartment complex or resort."
This “resort” offers residents a convenience store and grill, a fitness center and aerobics studio, a game room equipped with Ping-Pong, pool and air-hockey tables; several themed lounges; high-tech laundry facilities with a convenient text-alert system to let students know when their skivvies are dry; and an outdoor putting green. It’s definitely a far cry from their parents’ college dorm experience.
But Osprey Fountains isn't the only new campus building changing the student experience these days. For Katie Carston, a senior majoring in elementary education, UNF's new Student Union is where the action is. With its food court, Boathouse restaurant, game room, multiple meeting and study locations, outdoor plaza and amphitheater, the Student Union provides a central gathering place for a variety of social activities - and has had a transformative effect on campus life since opening in the fall.
"With the opening of the Student Union, campus life has changed drastically. The center of campus traffic has shifted from the Courtyard and the Green to the Student Union breezeway," Carston said. "It's great to have one common location where students can frequent to spend time and utilize the many different programs and opportunities offered to them."
Some of the activities Carston has enjoyed at the Student Union are meeting with friends outside on the plaza and inside at the food court, participating in senate and committee meetings in the Student Government's new Government Chambers, browsing in the new two-story UNF Bookstore and grabbing a bite to eat in the new-and-improved Boathouse restaurant. "It's safe to say I am a fan of the new area on campus and was an attending student at the grand opening of the Student Union earlier this fall," she said.
Unlike Carston, business-management student Lewis Harris is relatively new to campus. A senior who transferred to UNF a year ago, Harris wasn't around when dining choices on campus were more limited and there were fewer fun places to study and chill. But it didn't take him long to find the campus hot spots. Early on, he met up with friends at the new Starbucks and the renovated Thomas G. Carpenter Library, both still popular gathering places in the center of campus. He continues to frequent Starbucks two or three times a week and says, "I always notice the number of students there and how busy the place is." But as most folks would probably agree, he says the Student Union is now the campus hub.
"Since students now have a designated area to congregate, the visibility of their social interactions has increased," he said of the Student Union, where he likes to "laugh, talk, have lunch and study."
Women's basketball coach Mary Tappmeyer has noticed that since the addition of the Student Union and the subsequent migration of student life to the northern end of campus, things have picked up at the Arena across the street.
"It's a great addition to have the Student Union over on this side of campus. It makes us more available to the students and is a great place to hang out," she said. "I know there has been an increase in attendance at the basketball events and I attribute some of that to the Student Union's location.”
Tappmeyer is also impressed with what she described as the "unbelievable" Osprey Fountains, where some of the players on her team live. "It has been a great recruiting tool when we show potential student athletes our living facilities when they visit campus," she said. "It is like resort living on a college campus. Who wouldn't want to live there?"
UNF President John Delaney often jokes about a campus walk he recently took with former UNF President Adam Herbert. As they headed to the Student Union from the President’s Office in Daniel Hall, "He [Herbert] stopped and looked around, and said, 'Wait a minute, I'm disoriented. Where did the Boathouse used to be?'"
The spot where the old Boathouse used to be is now a large pond between the Coggin College of Business and the Student Union, just a hop, skip and a jump from the new, more airy and updated Boathouse on the second floor of the Student Union.
As Delaney pointed out in a recent speech, the past year has been one of tremendous physical growth, with the construction of 700,000 square feet of building space. In addition to the new Student Union and Osprey Fountains, the campus now has a new Education and Human Services Building and a three-floor wing on the Brooks College of Health Building, providing a new home for Student Health Services.
But it's the Student Union that Delaney said is transforming campus life. "From the new space for Student Government offices to a new art gallery, from a unique amphitheater to new eating establishments, the Student Union is bringing our campus community together," he said.
As for the newest place students can call home on campus, "The Fountains are certainly not the dorms that you and I lived in," Delaney said. "These were designed to create a true home for our residential students. I don't know about you, but all of this leaves me with a different sense driving onto and walking across campus today, a sense of celebration."
Anyone who hasn't been to campus lately should take an afternoon, come out and walk around to get a feel for the new surroundings. The newer, contemporary buildings on campus feature interesting angles, polished, clean-cut lines, open floor plans and lots of glass, letting nature in.
It's not really about the new buildings on campus. Many who have been part of the UNF community for years say what's really different is the level of student activity that's so visible now that there are more places to congregate and enjoy campus life. There are also more students than ever - 2,800 - living on campus, and more appear to be remaining on campus after classes to take advantage of the new facilities.
The Student Union’s Osprey Plaza is a good example. It’s always buzzing with activity, whether it's a UPD auction of lost-and-found skateboards, bicycles and textbooks; a Market Days event where vendors set up tables to sell their goods; or just an ordinary day where students plop down to text their friends with the latest news or set up their laptops to check e-mail, update Facebook pages or log in to Blackboard to take an online quiz.
It doesn't matter which way you look, there are people everywhere catching up with friends, making plans, laughing, joking and having a good time. Gone is the "commuter school" atmosphere that some say used to pervade campus. People are no longer just coming to UNF to take a class or two and then immediately returning to their off-campus lives. They're sticking around, chit-chatting with classmates, participating in any number of campus activities and making the most of their time at UNF.
Tom Cain and Dave Roman contributed to the reporting for this article.
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