Vern experience expands with construction

Buried among sprawling lawns and brick bungalows in the upscale Foxhall neighborhood, the Mount Vernon Campus is not a typical city campus.

Located two miles northwest of Foggy Bottom, the Vern has long been regarded as a satellite campus – a dumping ground for unlucky freshmen. But University administrators are working to change this reputation by transforming the Vern into a destination for students.

“We are confident that the potential of the Mount Vernon Campus is still untapped,” Senior Vice Provost and Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak said. “Down the road, this is going to be a very special place.”

The University, restricted by city regulations and a space crunch in Foggy Bottom, has sought to expand the academic and residential components of the Mount Vernon Campus to free up expensive leasing space downtown.

Broader changes to the campus began in 2007, when the University approved renovations to Pelham Hall. The residence hall once belonged to the Mount Vernon Seminary and College, a private women’s college founded in 1875. The University purchased the space in 1999. The Pelham Hall renovations marked the most expensive commitment to the campus since it was purchased.

Officials formally renamed the residence hall West Hall in fall 2010 and the dining hall was named Pelham Commons in honor of a former president of the college, Peter Pelham.

West Hall opened to about 280 freshmen in fall 2010, boosting the number of residents on the campus by 40 percent. This year, about 620 students live in the campus’ six residence halls.

Associate Provost Shelly Heller said she believes the campuses will always have different identities, pointing out, “we can’t bring ‘downtown’ here,” but that the Vern offers opportunities students can’t get in Foggy Bottom.

She said the campus has a unique personality that is attracting more students every year for both residential and academic experiences.

Heller said all students living on the campus selected a Mount Vernon residence hall as their first or second choice. Students are drawn to the “unique sense of community and closeness on this campus,” Heller said.

This spring, the University will open the newly remodeled Ames Hall academic center on the quad, in line with a long-term goal to expand academics on the campus.

Construction for the building broke ground in fall 2010, Heller said, replacing a dining hall and student space relocated to West Hall.

Chernak said the University is planning to move several departments to the new Ames Hall, including the University Writing Program and possibly the University Honors Program, although plans will not be finalized until later this fall.

“We haven’t been successful in developing a focus for the campus that is unique,” Chernak said. He said Ames Hall will allow the University to “develop a better set of academic planning,” for example, offering courses compatible for most freshmen in the same time block to cut down on shuttle time.

The Interior Design Program, the forensic sciences department and the Women’s Leadership Program are already housed on the Vern.

Dean of Students Peter Konwerski said the additional academic space in Ames Hall will help create a “more focused Mount Vernon,” one that offers a more personal – and more traditional – academic experience.

Konwerski said in three or four years when all freshmen take their writing courses on the Vern, “the Mount Vernon experience will just become part of the GW culture. That’s the full integration.”

When freshman Rian Shambaugh was looking at colleges, she said she wasn’t sure if she wanted to live in the city or in a more traditional college setting. Now, she said, she can do both.

Shambaugh, a resident of Merriweather Hall, described the Vern as “the opposite of Thurston,” and said she has come to appreciate the quiet, but can feel socially isolated.

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