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Making the University of South Florida home

TAMPA — The door opened and Christian Lisko stood there for a second.

Half the room was already cluttered with stuff — a mini-fridge covered in magnets, a couple of skateboards, an empty cereal bowl — but the other half was empty.

All his.

This was the day Christian had been waiting for, when he and thousands of other University of South Florida students could move into their dorm rooms. Over the next few hours, the 18-year-old would start filling his 6-by-7 space with all the packed-up pieces of his life.

Those clinical white walls, with the hard mattress and tiny shared bathroom, would soon be home.

And that's music to the University of South Florida's ears.

The university once regarded as Tampa Bay's commuter school is working harder than ever at making sure kids like Christian are comfortable. Sure, freshmen are now required to live on campus their first year, but that's not why Christian did it.

He wants to be there. And that's the key.

USF's sentiment is one shared by colleges across the country, hooking into housing trends that cater directly to students' wants — gender-neutral dorms, expanded campus activities and "living-learning" communities that group students based on academic tracks or interests.

Christian, for instance, chose to live on a floor that houses only other business majors. That's not the only perk. His hall, USF's newest, Juniper-Poplar, includes its own dining facility, a Starbucks coffee shop, a movie rental vending box, ATMs and a 24-hour help desk. That's in addition to the kitchens and study lounges on every floor.

It's all about the H-word.

"We have the ability to create a residential campus that students can call home," said USF's dean of housing, Ana Hernandez.

The goal: increase on-campus undergraduate residents from 17 percent to 25, the housing dean said. That would obviously benefit the university, financially and in recruiting efforts, but ask USF's administrators why they're heading in that direction and they point to students.

Students who live on campus do better all around, they say. They get higher grades, are more likely to graduate, make more social connections and have more school spirit.

Most importantly, they feel like they belong.

• • •

Christian was in the second grade in North Carolina when he discovered his family was different. Other kids were talking about their homes they had lived in since they were born.

That's weird, Christian thought.

Because of his dad's career in the U.S. Coast Guard, Christian had already lived in three places by then. When he graduated from high school, the tally was up to 10, and never anywhere for more than two years.

Puerto Rico, Clearwater and Miami. North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama. The island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. The coast of Italy.

For Christian, home has been a lot of places, which is to say, it's been no place.

"It's like, you get used to where all your things are," he said. "Where your bed is, where all your stuff is. And then the packers come and then they leave and I walk into my room and it's just empty."

So when it came time to apply to college, Christian narrowed his search to Florida schools — partly because after living in three Florida cities, it seemed the most familiar.

In an admissions essay to several colleges, Christian talked about how his global perspective would be an asset. Inside, he imagined a place he didn't have to leave — for at least four years.

When he decided on USF, Christian envisioned joining campus clubs or bands. He found dorm-mates on Facebook and thought happily, that on that first day of classes, everybody would be a new kid.

• • •

Finally, it was Wednesday.

Christian had woken up in his family's little hotel room at 6:30 a.m. His parents loaded all his stuff into the rental car and pulled into the dorm parking lot. Students were everywhere, all doing the same thing. All starting new.

"Here we are," said Dad.

A welcome crew yelled Christian's name as he walked up to the building. They went up to the fourth floor, past a big dorm map and a painted poster that screamed "GO BULLS!" in bright paint.

And then, they were there. In that half-empty room.

Mom started messing with Christian's new sheets, Dad cracked jokes in his "USF DAD" polo shirt, little brother Patrick marveled at the size of the bathroom ("Wait, this is it?").

And Christian just looked around.

Somebody asked him how he felt.

"Excited," he said, and a little unsure.

He unrolled a Star Wars poster and pushed his guitar amp under his bed. Then it was time for everybody to go.

Dad shook his hand. "Give us a shout if you need anything."

Mom hugged him, then started fiddling with the mattress again. "Wait . . . just . . . I just want to show you . . . okay, okay we're leaving."

Christian walked them out, then went back to the room with his name on the door.

Campus life

Examples of how colleges are trying to get more students to live on campus:

• Eckerd College allows students to have pets on campus.

• University of Central Florida's Rosen College Apartments caters hospitality majors.

• At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 300 students live in the "Sponge," which features a playground-style pit filled with little balls.

• Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., has the Center for Sustainable Living, a.k.a. the Treehouse, where students work on environmental projects and take three-minute showers.

Sources: University websites and U.S. News & World Report.

Start dates

Most of Florida's public universities start classes on Monday, including USF, University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Florida International, Florida Gulf Coast, New College, University of North Florida and University of West Florida. Florida State, and FAMU start Aug. 29, and Florida Atlantic University starts Saturday.

Making the University of South Florida home 08/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 11:20pm]
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