How Campus Rec Centers are Offering New and Diverse Services

Michael Popke Headshot
[Photo courtesy of, article date April 19, 2018]
[Photo courtesy of, article date April 19, 2018]

With fewer than 3,100 students, the University of Richmond will never be among Virginia's largest campuses. Yet for years it has been at the forefront of exploring modern approaches to student wellbeing and is now building a new facility that will house all campus healthcare services in one location. Those entities will include the Student Health Center, Counseling and Psychological Services and the Center for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, as well as wellness education and nutrition services.

The Well-Being Center, as the new building will be known, is designed to encourage students to visit the facility not only when they need care, but also to enjoy a health-food café and patio, mindfulness and meditation facilities and services, and a venue for speakers and interactive learning focused on wellness.

"We realized our students are trying to check off all of these academic boxes," says Marti Tomlin, associate director of facilities in Richmond's Recreation and Wellness Department. "But when they graduate, they often can't check the box that says, 'I was happy and healthy and left school knowing how to cope with stress and other life challenges.' We want the overall student experience to be successful and purposeful, and the Well-Being Center is one way to do that."

Richmond's new facility, expected to open in time for the Fall 2020 semester, will be made possible with a generous donation from an alumni family.

Meanwhile, recreation leaders on other campuses are seeking innovative and cost-effective ways to create spaces that appeal to diverse populations and provide broad, inclusive opportunities. Indeed, rethinking how various departments can team together to use new and existing real estate to keep students healthier and happier has become a top priority on campuses all over the country.

Dec. 5-7

Dates for the 2018 NIRSA Recreation Facilities Institute Presented by Mondo



Percentage of students experiencing some sort of mental health crisis during college



Percentage of students with mental health issues who seek help



Number of students engaged in CanAssist activities at the University of Victoria during fiscal year 2016-17



Number of CanAssist hours worked by co-op, work-study, volunteer and international students

University of Victoria: Inclusion
In May 2015, the University of Victoria in British Columbia opened the Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA), a $77 million, 200,000-square-foot recreation facility that introduced several new programming options in aquatics training, dance, martial arts, racquet sports, climbing and bouldering, group fitness, personal training, and expanded health and wellness opportunities. It was also a 2017 NIRSA Outstanding Sports Facilities Awards recipient.

Perhaps most significantly, the facility houses CanAssist, a campus organization dedicated to helping improve quality of life for people with disabilities, while also increasing awareness of disability issues.

Given a prominent location near the facility's main entrance, CanAssist occupies about 15,000 square feet of CARSA and has transformed activity on campus, particularly for students and community members with physical challenges. Through numerous local partnerships, CARSA offers wheelchair basketball and tennis programs, inclusive dance opportunities, group fitness classes, and adaptive personal training and strength and conditioning sessions.

"The opening of CARSA and the work of CanAssist on the UVic campus helped put energy behind the notion of different departments coming together for a common good," says Clint Hamilton, director of athletics and recreation at the University of Victoria.

Alyssa Hindle, special projects and inclusion manager for CanAssist, has called numerous spaces on campus home over the past 19 years. "As a result of us moving into CARSA and having this partnership, we've been able to boost the profile of CanAssist on campus and partner to create a lot of new outcomes around inclusive programs, training for staff and facility accessibility," she says. "Those were all things we weren't working on before, because we didn't have the partners."

Stevenson University: Game on
When Elliot Hirshman began his tenure as president of Stevenson University in July 2017, one of his goals was to provide more recreational opportunities for students on the Owings Mills, Md., campus. Three fitness centers offer workout opportunities, but Stevenson had no dedicated building for recreation.

In Garrison Hall North, an underused academic and administrative building, Hirshman and campus recreation director Matthew Grimm saw a major opportunity. Crews renovated the two-story building's first floor and on Feb. 1 debuted a new student club and activities center. The space houses the university's club sports offices, a fitness center, three meeting rooms and Stevenson's burgeoning esports program with two specially designed areas — one for console games and one for computer gaming.

"We've done a good job of converting underutilized space into something really beneficial for students," says Grimm, who also serves as the university's assistant athletic director. "The esports kids, especially, are ecstatic. They feel like they have their own locker room. There aren't a lot of schools that have a dedicated esports room like we do, which is really cool."

The esports rooms are open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and house 12 consoles and 25 computers; an attendant is stationed in each room. The fitness center, which is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., boasts more cardiovascular equipment than the other existing fitness spaces and has made Garrison Hall North a much more popular on-campus destination. The center is also now a stop on campus tours for prospective students.

"It's added a new element to life on this campus, and we're starting to better provide what students are looking for," Grimm says about the renovation. "It's been an awesome transformation, and I'm excited to see where things go from here."

Two standards, one goal
Building or renovating for enhanced wellbeing can be a complicated undertaking that involves multiple campus entities, often with each serving different constituencies.

Fortunately, NIRSA explored the WELL Building Standard and the Fitwel Certification Standard, two relatively new developments, to assist college and university recreation officials in creating facilities optimized to advance human health and wellbeing. Strategies integrate everything from air quality and access to trails to parking options and food served — plus just about everything else in between.

"We're at a turning point in higher education," says Tomlin, who is also program co-chair of the 2018 NIRSA Recreation Facilities Institute, an event scheduled for December in Miami to provide in-depth information about planning, constructing, renovating and operating recreational sports facilities. "We need to de-silo departments and work together to make sure the entire campus community understands what it means to focus on students' wellbeing."

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Campuses break down barriers with innovative use of spaces." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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