By Greg Gelpi
Resting in a cubbyhole of couches, sophomores Justin Swann and John Strobel plugged their lap tops into a high speed Internet connection and studied for an online midterm exam.
A far cry from the pine-tree covered dairy farm of the 1960s, the students relaxed before their test in Clayton College & State University's newest addition, the $19 million University Center.
What began as Clayton Junior College in 1969 has developed into a four-year university with aspirations of offering graduate classes as well. The Board of Regents approved three junior colleges at the time, and funding for the nearly $5 million initial construction costs came through Clayton County bond revenue.
Mirroring the growth of the Southern Crescent, Tierra Brown, 19, is one reason why Clayton State is setting records for enrollment as it enjoys its 35th anniversary.
"Convenience," Brown of Jonesboro said.
Clayton State Apartments provide her with the convenience of living near the campus, while not living in the tight quarters of a dormitory, which the campus does not have.
"You have your own place, yet people are still close," she said.
In its 35 years, much has changed, such as the addition of the apartments, while much has remained the same.
"What has stayed the same is the natural beauty of the campus," said Tom Barnett, who has taught English at Clayton State since 1971. "I think we will always take pains to preserve that spectacular beauty."
He recalled joining the faculty at the age of 24, fresh out of graduate school. Only the "core" buildings were on campus at the time.
"This was nothing but pine trees in those days," Barnett said of his office in the Arts & Sciences Building.
Since then, the library has moved from the second floor of the Student Center to its own building, and Spivey Hall and the Harry S. Downs Continuing Education Building, named after the university's first president, among many others have popped up. Clayton State recently opened its University Center, one such building, which will be dedicated Nov. 11. The center is the first all student-oriented building since the campus opened.
Spivey Hall has attracted worldwide attention, enabling the university to book well known performing artists and establish a relationship with the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary.
The university has experienced 35 years of academic growth as well, becoming a four-year institution in 1986 and continually adding academic programs.
Clayton Junior College offered only two-year associate degrees, but Clayton State offers 28 four-year baccalaureate degrees and will offer master's and doctorate degrees in the coming years, said Bryan Edwards, vice president of external relations.
During the past 35 years, the students have changed with the university, Barnett said, both politically and ethnically.
"The student body was a lot more politically active back then, but that seems to be changing," he said.
Barnett also noted that U.S. News & World Report named Clayton State one of the most diverse campuses in the Southeast.
Strobel recalled discussing politics with a Russian classmate, while studying public speaking with a student from South Africa.
The diversity of the campus only adds to the education, Swann said.
"It's a really good experience to interact with people from other countries," Swann said.
Students have more opportunities to interact with each other through an increase in student activities, such as intramural football, talent shows and other events, Strobel said.
The introduction of bachelor's degrees spurred another evolution of the university, Edwards said.
"Most of our students were transferring out," he said, explaining that many went to other universities seeking four-year degrees. "They had no choice. This year for the first time we had more students transferring in."
Benita Moore attended Clayton Junior College in 1972 and serves as the associate dean of the School of Technology.
The university is "very much a plus for the south metro area," Moore said. The location of the university provides opportunities to those in the Southern Crescent.
"If we weren't so close, they may not (attend the university)," she said.
Another first, the campus had more traditional students than in years past with about half of the student body being traditional, Edwards said. Traditional students are those that enter college immediately after high school, as opposed to students who enter college later in life.
"It's a good mix between the older generations and the younger generations," Swann said, adding that one of his classmates is 60 years old.
Most of the students in the university's Continuing Education Department are nontraditional students. About 38 percent are between the ages of 31 and 40, 27 percent are between the ages of 41 and 50 and 22 percent are ages 51 and older.
The ingredients are coming together to fuel Clayton State President Thomas Harden's goal for the university to reach an enrollment of 7,000 students by 2007.
This semester the university topped 6,000 students for the seventh consecutive record enrollment. While it took 35 years to reach that number, it could exceed 20,000 in the next 35 years, Edwards said.
Sitting in his office in the University Center, an artist's rendering of the future of Clayton State hangs on Edwards' wall depicting rocket ships zooming about and a train, similar to the one planned for a commuter rail stop at the university.
"A college education is not just about content and remembering facts," said Edwards, who has been at Clayton State the longest among senior administrators. "We don't know what the next wave of technology will be, but we'll be prepared for it. We had no idea that we would become one of the first three universities in the nation to require notebook computers. That initiative put us on the map."
The university is primed for another 35 years with the opening of the state and federal archives, addition of apartments adjacent to the campus and continued commitment to technology, he said.