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Students at home in University Center

By Greg Gelpi

With couches, food and a view of the lake, Clayton College & State University students have a new home.

The University Center, a $19 million 131,000 square-foot building, home to the university's student-oriented facilities, has opened in time for the start of the fall semester.

It's just more cozy, said freshman Doug Jones, who shopped in the University Center's bookstore.

"It's more user friendly," Jones said. "I like the couches."

With more than 2,000 spots with high-speed Internet access, the center has power and Internet connections at every place students can sit. Open partitioned areas overlook geese on the university's lake and allow students to plop on the couches while doing schoolwork. Just across the way is the university's bookstore and new cafeteria.

Students don't even have to walk outside to get to the library, freshman Kristin Williams said. The library is connected to the University Center and provides easy access for students.

Class starts Monday, but John Ward has been working all week in the bookstore and said he likes the "modern look."

"It's almost like the new car feeling," Ward said. "It's the feeling of something new, the feeling of something no one has been in before."

The project took three years to complete, said Patrick O'Hare, vice president of operations for the university, and marks the first truly student-oriented building added since the school opened in 1969.

"It very literally becomes the center of the university," O'Hare said. "I don't know how to say that without sounding trite."

O'Hare said the building provides 10 times as much usable space as the existing Student Center and doubles the usable building space on campus, while pooling offices and facilities from four or five other buildings.

The four-story University Center is a "real statement from the outside and the inside," he said, adding that it is "monumental" and the "most modern forward looking building on campus by far."

The building also houses a computer help center, faculty offices, the College of Information and Mathematical Sciences, 10 small meeting rooms, three larger conference rooms, student organization offices, the offices of Academic Affairs and Campus Life and 17 classrooms, including a 165-seat lecture hall.

Its cafeteria will replace the existing cafeteria and is expected to open for business in October.

The opening of the University Center is one more sign of the growth and the future of the university. University President Thomas Harden set a goal of having 7,000 students by 2007, but he needs to set higher goals, said Susan Hoffman, university provost and vice president of academic affairs, lightheartedly.

"I think we're perfectly positioned to address the educational needs of the community," Hoffman said. "It's clear that we're on the way to a 10,000-student campus."

The university is projected to break the 6,000-student mark for the first time this fall.

The opening is "perfect timing," she said, since the university is offering eight new baccalaureate programs this fall and will hear back from University System Board of Regents regarding approval to offer the university's first graduate degree, a master's degree in liberal studies.

"It's a real good story for the Southern Crescent," Hoffman said.

The university will break ground on a new business building in the coming school year, and the school of business will complete its five-year process to receive accreditation from the American Association of Colleges and Schools of Business, she said. The university is also looking into the possibility of adding residence halls.