Student return for fall semester requires months of work across campus

August 09, 2011

For a story on how Office of Physical Plant staff and faculty prepare for fall arrival, go to

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When more than 44,000 students arrive at Penn State's University Park campus in late August -- more than 7,500 of whom are calling campus home for the first time -- it's not only the beginning of a new academic year for faculty and students. It's also the culmination of months of staff collaboration to get all aspects of Penn State ready for a fresh start.

"We start having regular meetings in March for August arrival," said Conal Carr, director of housing. "It's about allowing students and families to have the best possible experience moving on campus."

Carr chairs a committee of 14 campus units -- including University Police, Parking, Information Technology Services and Residence Life -- that meets annually from spring through September to ensure the smooth arrival of new and returning students,

For housing and other departments across campus, hundreds of tasks must be completed, often in a very short time, before students arrive and classes begin.

One major part of housing's preparation for the fall is room assignment. Staff face the complex task of assigning returning students, meeting preferences for particular residence halls and roommate pairings. These priorities must be considered while also assigning first-year students to freshman living areas, including some 4,000 beds in East Halls and seven residence halls in South and Pollock Halls.

Before those students -- about 14,000 who live on campus -- can move into their rooms for fall semester, housing staff must clean and re-clean rooms while managing residents attending summer classes and conferences. Staff also do preventative maintenance for halls and individual rooms that can't be done with a full population on campus. Some buildings are taken offline for projects such as elevator replacements, room remodeling or energy savings initiatives.

"All these projects, plus the conferences and summer school, go right into August, so in those last two weeks, it's a major cleaning program," Carr said. "Everything needs to be cleaned up and put back into place to be in tiptop shape for when students arrive. And that's just in housing."

Similarly, residential dining is actively operating in summer while preparing for fall arrival.

"For the units which have been open all summer, they have one short week to get caught up and get ready for fall semester," said Lisa Wandel, director of residential dining. "They are doing touch-up maintenance and painting, deep cleaning, reworking food stations, updating manuals and menus."

A number of students, such as athletes, international students and resident assistants, arrive on campus earlier in August. Dining staff are busy serving them while also preparing for most students' arrival for fall. Dining commons closed during the summer require cleaning, equipment testing and surface maintenance. Food storage areas, emptied in May, start receiving all manner of food product. Staff undergo training and team building, such as a daylong training program for cooks to learn, prepare and sample new recipes and instruction in new culinary trends and skills. For example, Wandel said this year cooks will learn home-style Indian cooking from a Penn State staff member.

Management, meanwhile, spend early August reviewing files and updating manuals, production schedules and ordering forecasts.

Areas such as housing and dining have well-established routines for the days leading up to students' return, but they do experience changes from year to year. In August, dining staff prepared to reopen Pollock Dining Commons after nine months of renovations were completed in late July. The new dining area reflects the latest trends in food presentation, preparation and dining environment. In addition to an enhanced, comfortable dining space with stations where students can have their food cooked in front of them, the renovation provides increased capacity, serving about 2,500 meals per day.

"This will be very exciting but also require a lot of long hours and no days off for many of our Pollock staff," Wandel said. They will test and be trained on new equipment, learn new menus and receive tours to be knowledgeable about the new space when students return.

For photos from Pollock Dining Commons and of dining staff in action preparing for the fall, visit

Long hours are common for staff across campus as they prepare for student return. Wandel said many dining staff members work 12 to 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week through the first few weeks of the semester, until newly hired, part-time staff are integrated into the schedule and meal rush patterns are established. Carr added that housing staff work overtime through much of August.

"All of our staff are working extended hours, usually for two weeks right before and right through arrival weekend," Carr said. "They are full, long days, but they are very high-energy and very positive."

Although an entire campus works to plan for every circumstance during arrival days, there is one thing that is entirely out of their hands.

"There's one element we can't control for arrival: the weather," Carr said. "We're always hoping for sunny, not-too-warm days."

  • Housing and Food Services staff member Patty Hutchings cleaned the pizza dough press in the kitchen at Pollock Commons on Aug. 1. The Pollock Commons dining areas have been renovated and expanded for the fall semester and staff are making final preparations for the arrival of students later in the month.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 23, 2011