Like may urban universities across the country, USF is both blessed and challenged with being in a “destination” city. Nightlife, museums, recreation, and seemingly endless cultural offerings are constantly pulling at USF students, taking them away from campus life and making involvement with campus activities a challenge. To keep students on campus and engaged, at least some of the time, the university has taken action to create a stronger sense of school spirit and involvement.
In the corridors below War Memorial Gymnasium, Patrick Visconti '10 sat in a white-walled office. He tensed and released the tightness in his shoulders. Having passed through the gymnasium on his way in, he knew rallying fans during the game that night would be difficult because of the largely empty stands.
"AT USF, SCHOOL SPIRIT SEEMS PRETTY RARE. A FEW PEOPLE
ARE REALLY GUNG-HO ABOUT SCHOOL-RELATED EVENTS AND SO ON, BUT MOST PEOPLE ARE APATHETIC. THERE’S A PERVASIVE TOO-COOL-FOR-SCHOOL ATTITUDE."
To pump himself up, Visconti cranked the volume on his iPod. "I'm gonna add a little guitar and make it easy to move your feet," came the verse by Sly and the Family Stone. "Dance to the music!" echoed the chorus.
When the music ended, he stood and pulled on the trousers of the University of San Francisco mascot—the Don. Once in uniform, Visconti turned from side-to-side. His spotter inspected the Don's black and gold cape, Gaucho hat, and Venetian-style mask before flashing a thumbs up.
On the basketball court, Visconti, a theology and religious studies major, reveled in the costume's anonymity. During timeouts against Saint Mary's College he pumped his fists to the cheers of Los Locos, USF's green and gold-clad student athletics fan club. But, two months into a four-month schedule, men's basketball, USF's most popular sport, had yet to crack the 2,000-attendance mark in a 4,500-seat gymnasium. To his credit, any sign of dejection was well concealed as Visconti scoured the crowd for children to high five—a mascot staple. He did pushups and situps at center court, took advantage of a loose basketball to attempt a breakaway dribble toward the basket, and feigned waxing the head of a referee who was "follicly challenged."
After the game, Visconti, who along with Marcus Grove '10 alternated as USF's mascot during the 2009-10 school year, took stock of what he was up against. "It's heart wrenching, to tell you the truth," Visconti said, referring to gymnasium bleachers that were often one-third to half filled.
As the Don, Visconti was just one of many on campus committed to rekindling USF's sense of school spirit. For more than a year, administrators have been busy developing and implementing strategies to coax students to attend games and stay on campus for non-athletic events—following an April 2009 leadership challenge by USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J., to improve the undergraduate experience.
A former high school third baseman for a Southern California school known for its stalwart fan base, Visconti was exasperated by the lack of spirit at USF athletics games after transferring his junior year. By his senior year, he had decided to do something about it.
"I wanted to be the Don because our school spirit on campus was so bad," said Visconti, who, more often than not performed for crowds far short of capacity.
Surveys show that the root of USF's lackluster attendance at games and other non-athletic events is multi-pronged. Again and again, students cited poor communication about upcoming events and overlapped scheduling. And, not surprisingly, many reported being drawn away from campus events and activities by San Francisco's museums, street fairs, and nightclubs, not to mention some of the best parks and coastline in the nation. Others complained that USF's athletics teams don't win enough games.
"At USF, school spirit seems pretty rare," said Daniela Ricci-Tam a junior media studies major and chief copy editor for the San Francisco Foghorn, USF's student newspaper. "A few people are really gung-ho about school-related events and so on, but most people are apathetic. There's a pervasive too-cool-for-school attitude."
Senior environmental studies major Tarun Marya is more involved than most students as a member of the Garden Project, Back to da Roots, USF's Bike Club, and several campus groups including the Green Team, and even he feels the allure of San Francisco drawing him away from campus.
"The city provides a place for everyone to share and be a part of concerts in the park, Mission Street poetry jams, farmers markets, malls, theaters, concerts, restaurants, and more," Marya said.
Such sentiments are common among USF students, to be sure. But with several new initiatives recently implemented, the expectation is that apathy will begin to give way to more involvement in student clubs, community service, and on campus events and activities, which are as vital to USF's spirit and community as athletics, Fr. Privett said. "Spirit generates energy, enthusiasm, and generosity in a person for a shared goal or desired outcome," he said.
Spirit has other benefits. It lays a foundation for the recruitment of new students and long-term alumni support. "We know from experience that alumni who have had a good four-year experience become the best ambassadors for the university," said Annette Anton '69, MA '83, director of USF alumni relations. "Spirit enhances everyone's experience of their college years, and the positive results are evident for years after they graduate in terms of engagement and giving."
Greg Wolcott, director of Student Leadership and Engagement (SLE)—an administrative umbrella for student clubs, student government, and student orientation and events—has led the response to the president's challenge to improve undergraduate activities on campus in those arenas.
When asked about his goals for improving spirit and community on campus, Wolcott appeared to relish the question. Smiling, he pointed to a poster-sized photograph hung prominently in his office depicting Harney Plaza packed shoulder-to-shoulder with students from some time in the 1960s.
"Now, we are making campus activities a priority again and putting systems into place that will hopefully promote higher student engagement," Wolcott said.
For 2009, SLE coordinated so-called Signature Events, five total, aimed at drawing 800-1,000 students each. The events included an improved student orientation with a hypnotist, student dance, and ice breaker activities, the Jammin' for Justice Concert: Rock Against Rape, a late night Halloween celebration, the Fall Fest concert, and outdoor "ice skating" at Negoesco Stadium.
But, putting on events didn't mean that students always flocked to them. In fact, the goal of 800 or more students wasn't always met, with just 300 attending both the Halloween celebration and Jammin' for Justice Concert while more than 1,700 attended the Fall Fest concert.
Inspite of sometimes missing the 800-attendance goal, surveyed students who took part in at least one Signature Event reported that USF felt like a "more traditional campus" afterward.
"It was a good start," said Wolcott, matter-of-factly. "We learned a great deal." For example, he made changes to align attendance expectations for fall 2010's student events with funding, rather than using a broad 800-1,000 estimate.
An even more critical lesson was ensuring student buy-in. Successful events in fall 2009 had students in the lead, organizing and promoting. In response, SLE handed over its primary coordination and promotion responsibilities for student events to the student-run Campus Activities Board (CAB)—part of the Associated Students of the University of San Francisco(ASUSF) student government—but continued its advising and funding support.
"We're talking about a cultural shift, from a decentralized approach where clubs, student groups, and departments were solely responsible for their event scheduling and promotion to one in which CAB, with SLE's help, works with constituent groups," Wolcott said.
One result of the transition is that the CAB budget increased about 70 percent over last year, said Jenny Dinh, CAB president. "Taking over from SLE's Signature Events program, CAB plans to put on about 11 events this year, roughly two events each month during the school year."
Scheduled events include the Homecoming concert with a headlining musician, film screenings, USF's Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, dances, and a carnival.
The new approach, led by CAB, also prioritizes better promotion and outreach to student government and clubs about campus activities though email, Facebook, Twitter, campus fliers, and the university's online calendar.
With about 20 events on campus each week, filling the calendar was never Wolcott's problem. Overcoming low attendance was. To improve scheduling and prevent double booking, SLE, as part of University Life, joined Athletics this fall to expand the Student Rewards program. For the first time in years, the two biggest event organizers on campus have created one calendar, offering rewards points for both.
Originally piloted by Athletics, Student Rewards offers prizes to students who earn points by swiping their student IDs at games and, now, by swiping their IDs at performances, lectures, and more. The program doubles as a database of involved students, more than 2,600 strong, who receive emails about upcoming games and campus events, and has increased attendance.
Other signs of progress include a 50 percent jump in the number of student clubs on campus to 120 from 80 in the past four years. The number of ASUSF elected student representatives grew to 30 from just three over the same period. All told, SLE estimates that 30 percent of USF undergraduates are involved in at least one organization.
In Athletics, administrators have heard students and alumni complain about not winning and have moved to hire and retain coaches to meet the department's stated goals of developing exceptional student-athletes in the Jesuit tradition and building teams to compete and win at the conference and national levels.
Indeed, a recent survey showed that 44 percent of students were dissatisfied with the ability of USF athletics programs to build school spirit.
"We get that fans are more excited and engaged when our teams are winning," said Eric Dumbleton, associate athletic director for external relations."We have responded by bringing in and retaining outstanding coaches we believe have a unique ability to recruit talent, and the right kind of student-athlete for USF, so that all the university's teams can compete at the conference level."
The strategy has made inroads, with USF volleyball finishing in the top four in the WCC for three years running, making it into the NCAA tournament in 2008 under Coach Gilad Doron.
Men's basketball, under Coach Rex Walters, improved its conference record to 7-7 in 2009-10 from 3-11 in 2008-09, and pulled out a headline-grabbing home victory against Gonzaga University, then ranked eighth in the country, that had fans mobbing the team at center court.
And Coach Jennifer Azzi, an Olympic gold medalist and WNBA star, took over USF's women's basketball program this fall amid high expectations.
But Athletics has gone beyond hiring new coaches and successfully piloting the Student Rewards program. By relocating the student seating section to better seats and moving it closer to the front row in War Memorial Gymnasium, Athletics improved student support and atmosphere at games in 2009-10 with 150 students on average sitting together and cheering as a unit compared to just 55 in 2008-09.
Midnight Madness, first launched four years ago by Los Locos, was expanded with Athletics' support and funding into an annual music and performance rally where USF's men's and women's basketball teams are introduced tos tudents, fans, and alumni. It drew 1,267 attendees in 2009-10 compared to 250 two years ago.
Similarly, newly added non-alcoholic "happy hours" in the student-entrance foyer with live music, promotional give-a-ways, and special concession prices proved popular, with 315 and 210 students, respectively, showing up ahead of USF's men's basketball games against Portland and Gonzaga universities in January.
Many of the new programs are meant to increase personal contact between athletes and non-athletes so that fans grow to know players one-on-one and want to cheer them on as friends and classmates, rather than as a number from the bleachers, Dumbleton said.
Still, administrators aren't satisfied, having heard complaints about dismal school spirit from a diverse collection of USF students and alumni over the years. This summer, Jennifer Turpin, USF's former College of Arts and Sciences dean and the university's new provost and vice president for academic affairs, added the position of vice provost for student development, installing Peter Novak, the former College of Arts and Sciences associate dean of arts and humanities.
"WE WANT TO INVOLVE STUDENTS IN EVENTS THAT ARE INTRINSIC TO USF AND THE BAY AREA, FROM GAME NIGHTS AT THE LIBRARY, TO HIKES IN MUIR WOODS, OR TAKING IN A GIANTS GAME."
One area where Novak, whose purview includes University Life and SLE, sees opportunity for improvement is bringing more of San Francisco's culture and entertainment choices to the university community. After all, the difficulty of attracting students to activities at an urban campus with so much to do beyond its confines is well known, including at schools like Fordham University in New York City. "Probably the biggest challenge is that Fordham, like USF, is in a major market," said JulioDiaz, Fordham associate athletics director for promotion marketing and special events. "We're (in) one of the best cities in the world for entertainment."
Fordham's athletic teams and events compete for students' attention against professional sports teams, Broadway shows, and New York's arms-length list of museums, Diaz said.
But Novak sees USF's location in San Francisco as an enviable problem and one that can be managed, if not overcome, by inviting Bay Area business leaders to speak to students, musicians to perform on campus, and by leading field trips to area museums or to the beach for surf lessons.
It's an approach he wasted no time introducing with the Welcome Weekends program. On Friday and Saturday nights for the first three weekends of the fall semester, campus departments like the Koret Health and Recreation Center, University Ministry, and the Gleeson Library/Geschke Center hosted group events such as a board game night, white water rafting, rollerskating, and beach trash cleanup intended to engage freshmen and new transfers from the outset.
Research shows that early student engagement improves retention, graduation rates, and overall satisfaction with the university experience."We want to involve students in events that are intrinsic to USF and the Bay Area, from game nights at the library, to hikes in Muir Woods, or taking in a Giants game," Novak said.
For now, his focus will be to add events and spaces for students to congregate with friends. These are building blocks to a sense of place and identity that is uniquely USF, Novak said.
A larger challenge lies ahead, however. At USF, where more than half the students live off campus, recognizing and even celebrating the residential campus/city dynamic doesn't offer easy solutions
"I think housing is our biggest question and I'll be studying other urban universities' approaches," Novak said.
Following meetings with student government and club leaders, as well as the San Francisco Foghorn, Novak anticipates that student leaders will offer many creative solutions, whether they're about housing, bolstering orientation, or improving the communication and promotion of events.
Cultivating a more active leadership role for students in promoting community and addressing student concerns is key to building a self-sustaining framework that younger students can grow into as upper-classmen.
"With so many changes underway and the additional focus on improving the undergraduate experience, I think it's an exciting time to be a student at USF," Novak said.