Friendly confines: Campus culture is a home run

Matt Hopkins, Director of Residence Life, preps for an unprecedented 12,000 residents.  (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

By Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau

Jerome and Cactus are beautiful new apartments populating the east side of the Grand Canyon University campus; their 1,200 beds add to an extraordinary growth that has boosted the number of residence halls to 20. While it is common for students at many universities to move off campus after their freshman or sophomore years, thousands of upperclassmen stay on GCU’s campus for accessibility to classes, activities, and friends, while their parents are comforted by the safety and affordability of living on campus.

The expansion of the east side to 2,400 beds brings the total number of students living on campus to a GCU-record 12,000 in 2018-19. Although part of the expansion can be attributed to the overall growth of students enrolling in the ground campus, a significant factor driving resident growth is the culture that has been forged on campus.

“Students here want to be in relationship, they want to be in community, they want to be together, enjoying life together, so this is that place that has that meaning because of those relationships,’’ said Matt Hopkins, GCU's Director of Residence Life. “The buildings help and the activities help, but at the end of the day it is the relationships and the culture and community that make it such a meaningful experience for students.’’

Jerome and Cactus, which open Wednesday, are reserved for returning students and feature two floor plans, both with two bathrooms: three bedrooms for three students and four bedrooms for four students. Each suite has a living room and fully equipped kitchen.

Jerome Apartments (foreground) and Cactus Apartments (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

“They are pretty deluxe accommodations,’’ Hopkins said. “There’s always a special buzz and excitement when you open a new building. We’ve had new buildings every year I’ve been here. It hasn’t gotten old, but we have done this before.’’

Hopkins arrived at GCU in 2012 and served one year as Judicial Officer -- a position that has been renamed Conduct Manager -- before taking over as Director of Residence Life in December 2013. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and a passionate Chicago Cubs fan, Hopkins earned a bachelor’s degree in Pastoral Studies and a master’s degree in Divinity. He and his wife relocated to Phoenix for the weather, and he accepted the job at GCU for the opportunity to work with college students. Increasingly, his job takes him over to the east side of campus.

East side of campus in growth mode

“It is cool to see that side of campus expand," Hopkins. “A few years ago we dipped our toe on the east side of campus, and now we have 2,400 beds on the east side of campus, we have the Colangelo College of Business over there, and the Canyon Activities Center, so it feels like we are establishing ourselves over there. ... It will help make the east side of campus feel more like the west side of campus.’’ (See slideshow.)

Junior Alexander Cortez lived in Agave in 2017-18 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Alexander Cortez made numerous connections in Agave in 2017-18, particularly in Life Group and intramurals. (Photo by Theresa Smith)

“I felt pretty secure out there," he said. “Everyone basically got to know each other over there. There was our own community on the fields out there, and the intramural sports were good too. It was easier to get involved because it was right out your door.  I honestly saw people from my window. I saw friends play their games, and I would walk across the street and play my games too."

Cortez played intramural flag football and soccer with a variety of students and pickup basketball games with close friends. When he wasn’t making connections outside, he established bonds through Bible study with his Life Group in Agave.

“I really got close to my Life Leader," he said. “I needed a person to talk to, and at that time I grew in community with the Life Group as well. Everyone was very close and open to talking about life. It got me closer to God and it was very helpful to meet new people."

The biomedical engineering major from Visalia, Calif., lived in Juniper Hall, on the west side of campus, his freshman year and will move into Encanto Apartments in August.

“I can’t afford living off campus as of right now," he said. “At the same time, living here allows everyone to get to know each other. College is about meeting new people and making new friends. Coming out of high school, a lot of people don’t know who their real friends are. For me, coming out-of-state to Arizona and moving into a room with new people has been a great experience. So I continue to do it each year."

While attending summer school, David Whitaker Jr. has watched the construction of his future home, Cactus Apartments.

“It is beautiful from the outside,’’ he said. “I can’t wait to get in it."

 The senior business administration major plans to ride his bike to main campus classes and events and walk to CCOB, where most of his classes will meet.

David Whitaker Jr. (left) is excited about moving into Cactus Apartments. His friend Guy Woods will live off campus. (Photo by Theresa Smith)

“It'll take only a few minutes because my dad raised me to have a pep in my step wherever I go,’’ he said.

The east side expansion will continue in the fall of 2019 when three more apartment buildings are planned for south of Diamondback Apartments, along with a swimming pool. Also, Colter Circle pedestrian walkway is set to be enlarged, increasing access behind the pair of Papago Apartment buildings, and a new entry point to campus will open via a bridge across the canal paralleling Little Canyon Trail.

Hopkins praised the work of Rich Oesterle, Director of Campus Development and Facilities, and Butch Glispie, owner of Pono Construction, the company erecting the new structures. “These guys are magicians in putting up buildings that look great, and doing so in the heat," Hopkins said.

New route during Welcome Week

The eastward expansion has necessitated a change in the check-in process for students moving into their rooms during Welcome Week, which begins Aug. 20. An extra point of entry has been added for drivers: one for the east side and one for the main side. First-year and transfer students will be unpacking in record numbers -- 6,000  compared to 4,700 last year, according to Hopkins.

“The freshman class is continuing to grow, so we need more beds and more buildings,’’ Hopkins said, citing several factors escalating the demand for on-campus housing among all grade levels.

“Security accessibility, minutes from class, access to friends, access to events on campus because you are here more, so you make yourself available,’’ he said from the perspective of resident students. “Of course, we want our commuters to attend events and we want our commuters to attend intramurals, but if someone goes to school here, they live here and they work here, by virtue of being here they have more opportunity to take advantage of what the campus has to offer.’’

Jorvon Bouchee (left) and John Weber are part of the crew building the Colangelo College of Business amid the summer heat. (Photo by Theresa Smith)

Community Learning Plan builds campus culture

The on-campus culture is palpable.

“There are safety nets that are not off campus,’’ Hopkins said. “There’s a sense of community, there’s staff here wanting to help students navigate a variety of things they may be encountering.  It is part of our culture to care for students and support them and, on occasion, to have a conversation that is educational. Sometimes there are hard conversations, conversations students need to hear. That is all done in the context of being for them.’’

The Community Learning Plan (CLP) was implemented two years ago to build culture on campus. It emphasizes education as the priority and fosters Christian service leaders through self-awareness and consideration of others, including roommates and floormates.

“We are continuing to perfect our third-year CLP, ‘’ Hopkins said. “Not only do students learn in the classroom, they learn by virtue of living on campus. It focuses in on three things: The first is self-awareness -- understanding how I am wired, what gifts and skills I have, what I like, what I don’t like, etc. The second one is community and relationships, and the third part is servant leadership.  So all the programming we do in the living areas focuses on one of those three areas. We have a number of different strategies that go after those learning outcomes. But still it is lots of fun; it’s not like we are sitting down with books and learning assignments by any means. It is more informal learning, just by virtue of living with people who are different and being exposed to different topics.’’

Hopkins is joining with Residence Life Managers Jesi Weeks, Kris Hayes, Holly Neely and Stephen Wahlstrom; Conduct Manager Brent Bailey; Conduct Coordinators Kayla Fonseca and Garrett Morte; 41 Resident Directors; and three Assistant RD’s for two weeks this month to train the dozens of Resident Assistants (RA’s) in the ways of CLP.

“We are there to support and encourage students,’’ Hopkins said. “We want to be a resource to them when they need it and influence them in ways that will continue to make this a great place to live.’’

Campus is definitely the place to be. On any given night at GCU, whether it is 7 p.m. or 11 p.m.,  the intramural fields are bathed in light and filled with students playing a variety of sports. They are laughing, sweating and calling out to each other. It is clean, safe fun, typical of a great place to live.

Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].

Jerome and Cactus Apartments are set to open Wednesday. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)


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