The first day of classes began Monday at Washington State University Vancouver, and with it came a bustling community of students and faculty that surprised both administrators and upperclassmen.
“This is literally the most packed I’ve ever seen this campus,” said Sunny Ly, a junior hanging out with friends by the campus fountain in between classes.
Though Monday’s foot traffic might have been an extension of first-day excitement, Chancellor Mel Netzhammer said he saw it as a sign that on-campus engagement levels were returning to — and perhaps exceeding — what they’d seen before the pandemic.
“Last year was the year things settled down,” Netzhammer said. “People came to campus and didn’t just immediately leave when classes ended. Faculty, too, were here for longer. It wasn’t just our students engaging with the campus.”
Compared with the 2021-22 school year, the number of student clubs doubled. The events calendar filled up. Enrollment figures appear to have stabilized. And as the uphill battle against post-COVID confusion continues, WSU Vancouver’s primary goals remain the same: stabilize enrollment, remain flexible in class options and promote on-campus engagement.
“The energy is high. People are mostly positive,” Netzhammer said. “But there are still plenty of challenges ahead.”
WSU Vancouver also has its eyes set on a handful of major projects in 2023. One piece of good news: the WSU system raised $167.9 million through philanthropic activity across the 2023 fiscal year — a new annual record.
In the next few weeks, the school will complete a study about its on-campus housing needs. Netzhammer and other leaders will deliver the results of the study — effectively an assessment of student need and how they would and conduct out-of-state recruiting efforts — to the Board of Regents when it meets in Vancouver in November.
The new Life Sciences Building is expected to start hosting classes next fall, with staff moving in to set up shop as early as spring 2024. When completed, Netzhammer and other leaders expect the new facility to propel the school to new heights in research.
Beyond major capital projects, Netzhammer said the school needs to continue working on providing “the small things” that help improve the student experience: from more degree options to on-campus perks.
Last year, WSU Vancouver embraced the first cohort of nursing students in a joint program with Clark College. The program allows students to leave Clark or WSU Vancouver as a registered nurse ready for a transfer to a four-year university.
“We have a lot of close partners in this community, but none are closer than Clark College,” Netzhammer said. “(Clark College President) Karin Edwards and I both believe there are multiple pathways to success.”
This year, WSU Vancouver will seek additional state funding to pursue a degree program in supply chain management — a joint effort with WSU Spokane.
Students said Monday that last year’s explosion of student clubs has boosted their college experience, but they said the situation remains especially difficult without on-campus living and dining.
“There’s more opportunities to build our community this year,” said Ly, the junior. “(In recruiting), the biggest challenge is this being a commuter campus. It’s hard to get students not to go home right away.”
Ly is the vice president of the Asian American and Pacific Islander student association and in the pre-health club. This past year, the former association added a freshman officer position he hopes will help foster interest and engagement among the school’s youngest students — something he hadn’t accessed as a freshman in 2021.
Kevin Davey, another student on campus Monday morning, said WSU Vancouver is taking a step in the right direction in helping clubs grow.
“The school is doing a better job at marketing clubs to students. They’re doing a lot more to make students aware of what all is happening,” said Davey, who said he’s working to jump-start a music club. “There’s more club collaboration, too. We’re trying to learn a lot about each other to see which ones could work together best.”
Senior Isabelle Castro, who works in the school’s student activities board, said the school’s propensity for on-campus events has previously been “held back” by hesitant facilities and operations teams. Since last year, however, they’ve been more receptive to student ideas.
“At events, there’s lots of the same faces, which is great,” Castro said. “We like to know we’re creating a little community, but we want to keep seeing more new people.”
One idea they’d like to tackle this year is more live music events — even if it means navigating noise ordinances and logistics challenges.
“We have a new team this year, we’re trying to be accessible and inclusive in what we do,” she said.