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Changing Faces

Changing Faces

by Don Kohler

When Kathleen (Aipperspach) Massara was a senior at Omaha Benson High School in the mid-1970s, her parents made the difficult decision of selecting the right college much easier for their teenage daughter.

"They didn't want me to go away to college," recalls Massara. "They preferred that I stay close to home." Massara did just that, often walking the handful of blocks to classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where in 1979 she earned a bachelor's degree in organizational communication.

Fast-forward 25 years to a time when Massara and her husband, Robert, a 1981 UNO graduate, began considering college options with their two children. Though the family lived in Elkhorn, Neb., the Massaras had little hesitation recommending their alma mater as the college of choice.

"Look at UNO today," Kathleen says. "I remember hanging out in the OUampi Room in the student center because that was one of the only ways to meet people. That was our social life.

"Today, UNO has an exciting, state-of-the-art campus with housing, the arts, athletics and outstanding facilities. UNO has everything a college student needs to succeed. I just wonder how my life would have been had there been all of those options that students have today."

She has an idea. Son Steven, UNO's student body president in 2006, graduated in December with a BS in recreation. He since has landed an internship in Washington, D.C., with Sen. Chuck Hagel and this summer plans to begin officer's training with the U.S. Air Force.

Daughter Nicole, meanwhile, is a sophomore majoring in marketing and advertising. She lives in the college's University Village, is a member of five campus organizations, including the Chi Omega sorority, loves to hang out in the new library and is a frequent supporter at Maverick athletic events.

The OUampi Room is but a memory, replaced by the Maverick Buffet and food court. The popular gathering spot for students today is the cozy Fireplace Lounge.

"When I was thinking about college I didn't want to go to a commuter campus," Nicole says. "But when I took my tour of UNO, I loved the campus and the feel of it. There is so much to do on campus, and I love living in the apartments. I have met a lot of good friends at UNO. I know many people who have gone to other schools and have come back because UNO offers all aspects of campus life."

Nicole and Steven represent the change to an increasingly younger face of UNO's student body. That's due in part to the many physical changes on the sprawling metropolitan campus in the middle of Nebraska's largest city.

It's also a planned change, the fruit of a targeted strategy the last decade by former Chancellor Nancy Belck and other UNO officials to attract traditional-age, college-bound students by embracing—not ignoring—the benefits of a metropolitan campus in recruiting efforts.

The numbers

Based on statistics from the UNO Office of Institutional Research, it appears that recruiting strategy — "The Metropolitan Advantage" — is working.

From 1994 to 1996, 51 percent of the UNO student population was under the age of 24. Today, nearly 80 percent of the campus fits that demographic, with a majority of those students (9,700) coming from Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster counties in Nebraska.

UNO enjoyed record enrollment numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The university's total headcount grew sharply from 1987 to 1988 (14,210 to 14,985), peaking at an all-time high of 16,227 students in 1993.

But the university's student population then, says David Cicotello, director of new student enrollment services, looked different.

"We had 50 percent of the students who were working adults with another 50 percent that were traditional students," Cicotello says. "The campus has shifted to a younger demographic since the peak years when we were a bi-modal campus."

Cicotello says increased competition for the "adult learner" market in the Omaha area forced the university to look at marketing to a younger demographic. "The aggressive competition for the adult learner market was evident in the Omaha area," he says. "The fact of the matter is that in the past UNO had become content with opening up the doors and seeing who would come."

UNO's total enrollment for the past nine years has hovered around 14,000 students, never dipping below the 13,000 mark. The fall 2006 enrollment of 13,906 was better than the nine-year average as tracked by the Office of Institutional Research.

"There is no doubt that UNO is an attractive place to get a quality education," Cicotello says. "I have always said that it is the academic programs of choice that drive the student's decision. The college has always offered quality degree programs, but many students are now seeing that UNO has all of the other amenities, such as housing, athletics, activities, an abundance of internships, and the list goes on. There is a dynamic atmosphere of a college-wide experience that is growing at UNO."

Cicotello says all of the elements he mentioned, and others, made a new recruitment campaign toward the traditional-age student an easier sell.

"You have a university located in the only metropolitan region of the state, you have a wave of new campus features in place and outstanding academic programs," he says. "In this emerging campus community, we are moving toward becoming a metropolitan university of the 21st century and are striving to be like our peer groups in that regard."

Agents of change

Looking more closely at the factors contributing to the emerging youth movement at UNO, Cicotello points to changes physical and programmatic.

That includes development of student housing. Approximately 1,200 students currently live on campus in University Village (568 beds), Scott Village (480) or Scott Residence Hall (164). Another 400 beds are on the way after recent approval by the NU Regents for more apartment-style residence halls on the Dodge Street campus.

The Pacific St. campus development of the Peter Kiewit Institute and the College of Information Science and Technology also has added to a thriving campus atmosphere, as have the recently renovated library (complete with a cyber café), and establishment of Division I hockey.

In addition, students can gain membership to more than 100 clubs and organizations or one of 15 fraternities and sororities on campus. UNO also offers intramural activities in almost every sport, many of them held in the university's Health Physical Education and Recreation building.

Alex Williams, 2007 student body president from Beaver Lake, Neb., says being a commuter campus no longer is a negative in the eyes of prospective UNO students. When he was elected student body president, Williams decided to "check the thermometer" of campus life at the other campuses in the University of Nebraska system and was impressed by what he witnessed.

"UNO compared favorably in terms of campus feeling, and that is important to the younger students," says Williams, a senior and political science major. "Our biggest advantage is being a metropolitan university with all the opportunities that go with being in the middle of a large metropolitan area. Things such as jobs for students, internship opportunities and social life are very important to college students today.

"First and foremost, UNO is right in the middle of the city, and location is everything. Young students today are still relying on mom and dad and the protective blanket that they provide, and UNO is close to home for a lot of them. Students have the option of either living on campus or driving to campus and enjoying all of the amenities that UNO offers. Since we have moved from a commuter campus to a metropolitan campus, we are doing a better job of recruiting and maintaining the Nebraska students."

Mojo risin'

Williams, an avid hockey fan, says he has witnessed student participation increasing at Maverick athletic events, which adds to the campus pride factor. "Certainly when you have a Division I hockey program that is doing so well, that helps," he says.

Cicotello, the new student recruitment director, says Williams' comments are evidence that the university's "Maverick Mojo" marketing campaign is catching on. UNO has blanketed television and radio airwaves with catchy commercials about an emerging campus lifestyle.

"What we have done with the Maverick Mojo campaign is to purposefully use the brand of the athletic department to drive the pride and recognition factors in our recruitment efforts," he says. "College students want to feel that sense of pride in their campus."

That growth in pride extends even to former students, says Kathleen Massara.

After staying at home to raise her children, Massara was contemplating her next move when she received a call from Interim UNO Chancellor John Christensen in 1998. "He convinced me to come back to school, and I ended up returning full-time for four years," Massara says. She earned a master's degree in speech pathology in 2002 and now works as an independent therapist helping stroke and dementia patients.

"The first thing that I talk about when I travel is about UNO," she says. "I am so proud of the fact that I went to UNO."

She had to walk only a few blocks to campus back then, but both she and her alma mater have come a long way since.

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