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W.Va. State updates facilities with dorm, convocation center

Those who drive by Institute on Interstate 64 might not notice the changes to West Virginia State University, but a visit to campus would reveal that the college is in a state of change and has been for some time.

One of the most notable changes is the addition of the Judge Damon J. Keith Scholars Hall in the center of campus, which will be the first dormitory built since Sullivan Hall in 1969.

The dormitory is named after Damon Keith, who was a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit judge from 1977 to 1995. West Virginia State graduated Keith in 1943 when it was still a black college.

Construction of the new dormitory started in September at the former location of Prillerman Hall. An opening date is scheduled for August.

Kimberly Osborne, vice president for university relations and operations, said President Brian Hemphill identified a need for better student housing when he came to West Virginia State in 2012. She said he wanted "bolder" housing options for students.

Unlike Sullivan Hall, which has standard two-person bedrooms and communal bathrooms, the new dormitory will have four-person suites, 10 apartments, a cafe, a gaming room and other amenities students have asked for. It will be energy efficient and cost effective to run, something Osborne said Sullivan Hall was not.

The dormitory will have 291 beds and replace Sullivan Hall, which will continue to be used for office space and overflow housing if needed.

About 10 percent of the university's students live on campus. Kitty McCarthy, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, said that number might rise once the new dormitory is finished, but she expects most students will still commute.

"It's a population that is very important to us, and one we serve well," she said.

Then there's the new 1,350-seat convocation center, which will be dedicated today at a private ceremony for supporters and financial backers. The center will open to the public Saturday when the Yellow Jackets play an inaugural game against the University of Charleston Golden Eagles.

The new facility, properly named the D. Stephen and Diane H. Walker Convocation Center, is part of a $19 million renovation project to the 73-year-old Fleming Hall. Other changes include state-of-the-art classroom upgrades and the installation of the hall's first heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

"There's a lot of change on campus," Osborne said. "These are high-quality facilities that will accommodate a learning environment."

That change doesn't include the construction of the $3.5 million Gregory V. Monroe Athletic Complex next to Lakin Field at the Dickerson Stadium. West Virginia State has yet to break ground on the 15,691 square foot building, but it is expected to start this spring with an opening date slated for September or October.

Osborne said buildings aren't the only things going up at the university. The entire campus now has wireless Internet capabilities.

Enrollment trends have also been positive. West Virginia State enrolled 418 freshmen in 2013 compared with 297 in 2012.

McCarthy said part of the university's success could be attributed to affordable tuition and the school's presence in the community.

"President Hemphill wants people out telling the State story," Osborne said. "Making community connections is part of the reason we have seen success on the recruitment front."

She said the school's two-plus-two engineering partnership with West Virginia University and WVU Institute of Technology has also sparked the interest of prospective students.

Engineering students who attend West Virginia State can take two years of prerequisite work before completing a degree at WVU or WVU Tech. McCarthy said the program has been successful.

While there is modest growth to the student population, the university still boasts a 17-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. McCarthy said smaller classrooms allow students the opportunity to do more hands-on research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

"Our size lends itself to a mentorship situation in the STEM discipline," McCarthy said.

She said learning is further enhanced by "significant" investments in equipment and instruments for faculty and students.

The College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics received $20,000 from the West Virginia Division of Science and Research Instrumentation Grants Program in December to purchase a gas chromatograph system for the chemistry department. Over the past two years, the department has received more than $600,000 to improve lab facilities.

Thomas Guetzloff, a chemistry professor and member of West Virginia State's board of governors, said the influx of money gives students access to state-of-the-art equipment and a "world-class" education.

He said American Electric Power donated a "tremendous" amount of money to start a Research Rookies program, which allows up to 10 freshmen to work one-on-one with a professor as well as conduct and present research. The program currently has six students.

"I'm not aware of any other research schools that offer a program like this to freshmen," McCarthy said. "It's usually reserved for juniors, seniors and graduate students."

Juniors and seniors in STEM fields of study are required to do research for credit, but West Virginia State's program gives freshmen the opportunity to start early and even earn some extra cash. Students enrolled in the program receive a $1,500 stipend each semester they participate.

"There are a lot more investments and grants enhancing the education of students," Guetzloff said. "Which is something I didn't see a lot of 10 to 12 years ago. We're seeing a lot more of that now."

Guetzloff said funds have allowed the university to elevate its standing among public universities in West Virginia. He said the school has always been a prominent land grant and research institution, but it can compete with larger schools now more than ever.

"One thing I have always heard is that we are the best-kept secret - meaning we have all this potential energy," Guetzloff said. "Now, you're actually seeing the kinetic energy. We're moving and moving forward."

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886. Follow him at twitter.com/wvschools.


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