by Lisa Proulx
PORTSMOUTH – Over the course of four days in February, three presidential candidates rallied at Great Bay Community College, packing the school’s bright new Student Success Center with more than 1,000 people at each event.
The New Hampshire Air National Guard trains in the center’s gym once a month. Business groups rent the building for seminars and meetings, and it’s used for job fairs, public ceremonies and an array of school activities including convocation, activity fairs, college transfer fairs and commencement.
This summer, hundreds of high-school students have been exposed to Great Bay as they come to campus for sports tournaments in the school’s gym.
Great Bay opened the 20,000-square-foot building in fall 2015 to improve campus life by creating a space that integrates curricular and co-curricular activities, focusing on leadership and career transition. The goal of the opportunities the new space makes possible is to promote students’ growth and professional development through educational, recreational, cultural and social programming.
The center has exceeded Great Bay’s goals, said Michael Fischer, the school’s associate vice president of student affairs, noting an ability to increase the number of activities ranging from career mentoring programs s to athletic events. In addition to appealing to a broader spectrum of students and enhancing campus life, the center has exposed Great Bay to the larger Seacoast community.
“Thousands of people who have never been here before, who knew nothing about Great Bay, have come to our campus this year because of the Student Success Center,” Fischer said. “The more we bring business and industry and other members of the community in here, the better it is for our students. We want to build relationships with the community, and the center is allowing us to do that.”
The centerpiece is the gym, which is open and bright, and used for basketball, volleyball and other athletics. But the building’s wide appeal is as a multi-use facility. There is room in the gym for 1,147 people and retractable bleachers seat an additional 400. This has enabled the college to host events such as a fiscal policy panel where students asked questions of such notables as former US Sen. Judd Gregg and CEO Paul Montrone about budget choices affecting NH and the nation.
Soon after the center opened in the fall of 2015, people from outside Great Bay began renting it. During the New Hampshire presidential primaries in February, candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump rented the center for political rallies. Each event drew capacity crowds, as well as local, regional and national media. Great Bay appealed to the candidates because of its proximity to the runways nearby at Pease. “We’re so close to Pease, they can be back on their plane in minutes. It’s a perfect situation,” Fischer said.
The use of the center for political rallies created discussion on campus about whether it was appropriate for Great Bay to host partisan events, particularly those by candidates whose campaigns were likely to draw protesters and, perhaps, negative publicity. Great Bay President Wildolfo Arvelo said it was within Great Bay’s mission as a public institution to hold public forums to encourage the free exchange of ideas across the political spectrum, so citizens can make informed decisions.
Among the renters in the first year was the New Hampshire radio group iHeartMedia, which hosted a “Baconfest” in the gym in May. The day-long event, with food, music and vendors, drew 1,000 people from across the state, said Marcia Vina, sales operations manager for the radio group.
“Great Bay was very easy to work with, and it was a positive experience for us,” she said.
The college benefitted from the publicity generated by the event, she said. Many people who attended “Baconfest” told Vina and others from the radio group they had never been on campus before. “And when you see the campus for the first time, you’re impressed.” she said.
According to Fischer, other organizations renting the space were equally impressed. In January, Stonyfield Farm (www.Stonyfield.com) and the New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility (www.NHBSR.org) presented Business Speak, an event with panel discussions and a networking luncheon. “This year’s event covered various topics on attracting and retaining workforce talent in New Hampshire. The organization is looking forward to bringing the event back again on a larger scale.”
As much as the building has helped raise Great Bay’s profile in the wider community, it was built to serve students first. “That’s why we call it the Student Success Center,” Fischer said. “We built it because we wanted to address the skills that students need beyond the classroom to succeed.”
More than 20 student clubs use the building including a Women Leadership Lunch Series and Executive Mentor Program.
Fischer said Great Bay designed the center with students’ personal growth in mind. The goal is for students to develop what he calls “soft skills” – leadership, communication, problem-solving – that the U.S. Department of Labor has identified as essential to success in the professional world. It encourages civic engagement, community development and student governance.
For the first time, Great Bay students competed in athletics within the Yankee Small College Conference, which includes community colleges and small colleges across New England. Great Bay – competing as the Great Bay Herons – fielded women’s teams in basketball, volleyball and golf. Men competed in basketball and golf. It was a rough first year competitively, “but our student athletes got a ton out of it,” Fischer said.
Athletics is an effective recruiting and retention tool, he said. Schools that offer athletics increase the percentage of full-time students and retention rates. The athletic programs associated with the center are paid for with fundraising through Fischer’s office. He and his staff hosted what has become an annual golf tournament in late June, where they reached their goal of raising $30,000.