Student dissatisfaction aired at Master Plan focus groups

Students convened in the University Club Gold Room Wednesday night for three campus Master Plan focus groups. (Photo by Elise Lavallee | Contributing Editor)

When asked at a Campus Master Plan focus group meeting about what kind of future aesthetic students want Pitt to have, students made it clear that functionality comes before aesthetic for them.

“Functionality first,” one student said, before others chimed in agreement.

Students convened in the University Club Gold Room Wednesday night for three Campus Master Plan focus groups to provide input about improvements to the student union and student recreation facilities. The University’s developing master plan — a plan for what campus will look like in the next 30 years — encompasses elements such as student housing, transportation, athletics, utility infrastructure and the use of existing space on campus, for which different developers have been contracted.

Project analyst Peyton Brailsford and assistant project manager Caroline Edwards — both employees of Brailsford & Dunlavey, a program management firm — led the focus groups. The two work for a division of the company that specializes in planning non-academic college and university facilities. The University recruited them earlier this year to provide advisory services as the University assembles its master plan.

Brailsford said hearing from students in person helps them better understand the more nuanced concerns and problems students have.

“Focus groups are great,” Brailsford said. “The purpose is to get an understanding of how students interact with these facilities.”

Broken into on-campus undergraduate, off-campus undergraduate and graduate student sections, 39 students total attended the focus groups. The on-campus undergraduate session — lasting 45 minutes starting at 4 p.m. — had 14 students attend, and the off-campus undergraduate portion — lasting 45 minutes starting at 5 p.m. — had about 25 students from various student clubs and organizations in attendance. No graduate students showed up to their scheduled portion.

Several students at the off-campus focus group voiced their concerns about Pitt’s student union not feeling like a place where students can relax. Several attendees said unless a student is part of an organization with an office, the union doesn’t provide a place for students to congregate and interact as a community when they are not in class.

“I always feel like I’m in the WPU elevators with adults,” one student said. “I thought that would change after summer term ended, but it didn’t.”

But Gerard Tessier, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student, disagreed with other students on this point. As a member of the Student Office of Sustainability, Tessier spends much of his time on the fifth floor of the union.

“I like the student union,” Tessier said. “I can understand how [if a student doesn’t have an office in the building] they might not feel the same way.”

Other concerns about the union from off-campus students included a lack of spaces for storing items and relaxing outside of a study environment.

Some of the students involved with recreational clubs on campus, including dance, hockey, and mixed martial arts, said though Pitt has a multitude of recreation facilities, it’s difficult to find space for organized team practices unless rooms are reserved far in advance. They said more space would be beneficial.

Following the meeting, Pitt seniors Jackie Sharp and Breanna Doherty and Pitt junior Dana Julian of Pitt women’s ice hockey approached Edwards and Brailsford about the possibility of a Pitt ice rink.

The three mentioned how women’s ice hockey has attracted students to the school because it’s not something commonly offered by other universities — especially not to women. The trio mentioned the Hunt Armory in Shadyside is for sale, and fielding proposals for development. The 1.8 acre property was previously used as an auditorium to host concerts and political events.

“The building is big enough to house two ice rinks, as well as an off-campus recreation facility that could be used both by Pitt students and the Pitt community,” Sharp said. “Low-income kids in the area don’t have access to facilities like [ice rinks] and Pitt helping to build a facility like this would give them those opportunities.”

Brailsford & Dunlavey will be circulating a student survey with similar questions to those asked at the focus group meeting by email some time within the next week. This survey will provide them with the opportunity to field comments and concerns from as many students as possible so they have a broader understanding of what kind of changes students at Pitt want to see in the union and recreation facilities.

While students understood campus improvements won’t happen while they’re enrolled, some students, such as Josh Chamberlain — a WPTS radio member and junior information sciences and psychology major — still recognized that positive changes could benefit both future students and themselves.

“If it adds to the University in the future, that helps us out too,” Chamberlain said.

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