Behind the scenes, efforts of hundreds make student move-in smooth

August 20, 2010

Each fall, Penn State’s University Park campus undergoes a massive transformation, as tens of thousands of students return in the space of only a few days. On campus, streets and parking areas fill with cars packed with student’s belongings and family members. Visitors need directions; students need residence hall keys and meal points and maps and parking permits. For weeks and months before students arrive for the academic year, an army of people is working behind the scenes to ensure that arrival weekend goes off without a hitch.

This fall, about 44,000 students will attend classes at Penn State’s University Park campus. More than 13,500 of them will live in on-campus housing, and about 8,000 people will be arriving on campus as first-time enrollees at University Park, either as freshmen or transfers from other Penn State campuses or universities. Across the board, the people involved in coordinating preparations for move-in say good communication among departments and the individual commitment of hundreds of employees are the keys to making the massive move-in effort a success.

As the director of housing operations at University Park, Conal Carr has his hands full as move-in week approaches, coordinating the activities of 216 staff members as they work overtime to ready the campus’ 53 residence halls and eight commons buildings for students. All summer long, the residence halls see the completion of projects such as renovations, elevator maintenance and painting; in the week between the end of summer events on campus and the arrival of students, Carr said his staff puts in about 16,200 man-hours preparing residence hall rooms.

“Every year we fine-tune the process. A lot of overtime goes into our preparations – our staff members work between 13 and 17 days straight, some of them 10-hour days, as student return approaches,” Carr said.

A significant improvement over the last 10 years, he said, has been the formation of the Fall Arrival Committee, a group that he chairs. He said the committee, which has representatives from departments such as Residence Life, the University Police, Food Services, Transportation Services, the Schreyer Honors College and the Office of Global Programs, has been instrumental in improving the student arrival experience. The group meets monthly from March to August, reviews the previous fall’s student arrival and makes improvements to the process.

“We have more than 13,500 students coming to live on campus. If the police weren’t talking to Housing and Housing wasn’t talking to Food Services, I just can’t fathom how it would work,” Carr said.

Tyrone Parham, deputy director of University Police, said the open lines of communication among the many units that play a role during move-in are crucial.

“To make this work, the whole University has to come together. It’s a team effort involving cooperation between many departments,” he said. “At this point, we really have it down to a science. If you take a step back and look, it is a well-refined machine.”

University Police officers will be out in force this weekend helping to direct thousands of drivers, with about 50 student officers in addition to a crew of full-time officers on campus on Aug. 20 and 21, during the peak of the move-in.

“When students and their parents arrive, an officer probably is the first official Penn State person they will see. We want to greet them and help them to figure out where they need to go,” Parham said.

Diane Grimm, a lieutenant with University Police who is closely involved with preparation for student move-in, said officers are there to help.

“Every one of our officers and student officers are like information booths – we try to feed them as much information as we can,” Grimm said. To assist officers, drivers who are coming to drop students off at residence halls should have their unloading permit (which can be located on Penn State’s Welcome Week website at online) displayed on their dashboards as they arrive.

After police have directed travelers to their destinations, students who are moving into on-campus housing will receive assistance from Residence Life’s Welcome Week leaders and hall haulers. Members of the two groups, comprised of about 600 student volunteers, will be at posts across the campus’ residence halls and will be on hand to answer questions about move-in, point people in the right direction and give students a hand as they unload their vehicles. The University’s 250 resident assistants and community assistants also will be on hand, and will continue to be a point of contact for students living in the residence halls.

Grimm said arriving students should try to unload and move their vehicles as quickly as possible. “Obviously, with so many students coming in we want turnover to be as fast as possible. After they unload they’ll be directed to a lot for longer-term parking.”

Student parking

Doug Holmes, acting director of Transportation Services at Penn State, oversees the Penn State Parking Office, which manages the campus’ 17,000 parking spaces and distributes parking permits to faculty, staff and about 8,000 students each year. Holmes has been witness to 35 years of fall arrivals, and said that thanks to continued innovation by the team of about 25 employees at Transportation Services, the process of permit distribution has become streamlined nearly to the point of perfection.

“When I started here, we would open our doors at 7:30 a.m. on arrival day and the line of students waiting for a parking permit, three or four people wide, would stretch for hundreds of feet all day,” Holmes said. “Twenty years ago it might have taken two hours to get a parking permit. Now you can do it without ever stepping foot in the parking office. You can do it online and we’ll mail you the permit, or you can pick it up when you arrive and be out the door within a minute or two.”

Just as the Fall Arrival Committee has been slowly tweaking and refining the process of student move-in, so too has the parking office been consistently improving its processes over the years.

“There was no one wave of the magic wand that changed everything overnight,” he said. “It was an evolutionary process that got us to where we are now.”

Students who are eligible to park a car on campus (undergraduates must have completed at least 28 approved credits to qualify for a permit, with some exceptions) should visit the Penn State Transportation Services website at online, or the Parking Office in the Eisenhower Parking Deck. Students also can access a newly updated bicycle registration form on the website.

Changes since spring

As they settle in, returning students likely will notice a change in the appearance of parts of campus, a result of the continuing work at Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant (OPP). Each year, from the middle of June through to the week before student arrival, leaders from units within OPP meet on a weekly basis, working to guide about 50 major summerlong projects alongside many smaller jobs.

On a large scale, returning students will notice new sidewalks on and near Old Main lawn, a newly renovated streetscape on Fraser Road beside West Halls, fresh pavement on Pollock Road near the Millennium Science Complex and continued work on the new Nittany Lion Softball Park near East Halls. However, they may not notice less visible projects, which run the gamut from construction to landscaping to utilities repair and improvement.

Lloyd Rhoades, manager of Central Services at OPP, said many of the 1,300 people who work at OPP put in extra time in the waning weeks of the summer to ensure that the campus is ready for the hustle and bustle of the fall semester. Teams service the campus’ 350 elevators and prepare the campus steam plant for the winter heating season. They maintain the campus’ fleet of cars, and agricultural and utility vehicles. They inspect fire extinguishers and fire alarms. They even pitch in on move-in day, helping students to move their belongings with Gators and other utility vehicles.

“I think we have a great sense of our mission,” Rhoades said. “We know our mission is to support the academic community and the research and the outreach that we do. Our people have a very strong sense of that mission, and they take pride in what they do.”

The final touches

In East Halls on Tuesday, Aug. 17, three days out from student return, Penn State residence hall utility workers Delores Thompson and Cheryl Neff worked to prepare rooms for students who will live in Packer Hall this year. Thompson and Neff, who have worked at Penn State for a combined 30 years, said that despite the long hours, they were in the midst of one of their favorite times of the year.

“We look forward to student return every year,” Thompson said. “For them, this is a brand new beginning, and we get to be here to help guide them through it.”

  • Penn State residence hall utility worker Delores Thompson worked to replace a lightbulb in Packer Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 17, three days before student arrival. Click on the image above for more images of staff preparations for student arrival as well as move-in on Friday, Aug. 20.

    IMAGE: L. Reidar Jensen
Last Updated November 18, 2010