August 20, 2018
FOCUS: Higher Education

In year two, UConn Hartford has growth plans, aims for tighter community connections

HBJ Photos | Sean Teehan
HBJ Photos | Sean Teehan
UConn's Hartford campus (shown left and above) is preparing for its second academic school year. Mark Overmyer-Velazquez (left) is the campus director.

Hitting the Books

Snapshot of UConn Hartford's undergraduate academic programs

• Business administration

• Business data analytics

• Financial management

• English

• Human development and family studies

• Psychological sciences

• Urban and community studies

• Social work

• Public policy

Source: UConn Hartford

When talking about UConn's Hartford campus, Mark Overmyer-Velazquez bristles at the notion of it being called a satellite to the University of Connecticut's flagship location in Storrs.

Overmyer-Velazquez, the school's campus director, will only call it UConn Hartford.

"I think we have our own identity," Overmyer-Velazquez said during an interview in his mezzanine-level office at the former Hartford Times building that now anchors the UConn Hartford campus. "What our academic advantage here is being in the capital of the state; being in a thriving urban center."

It's been a year since UConn opened its downtown Hartford campus, and so far things look promising. The student body currently consists of about 3,100 undergraduate and graduate students — most from the Hartford area. Enrollment is up 33 percent from last year, and the number of students selecting UConn Hartford as their first-choice campus has risen 13 percent, according to UConn.

But after spending year one moving into new buildings, and generally getting the campus up and running, Overmyer-Velazquez has a broader vision he'd like to implement.

He wants to deepen ties with community organizations, promote the downtown area as a destination for young people to live and learn, and create an ambitious global urban studies program he hopes will put UConn Hartford on the map in academic circles.

It's a tall order, but after the first year, members of downtown Hartford's business community are hopeful for the school's success.

Foot traffic is up in at least parts of downtown, and the prospect of a sustained injection of college students and young professionals renting, dining and shopping in the Front Street and broader downtown area has some neighboring businesses bullish about the future.

In all, UConn's combined 232,000 square feet of downtown learning and community space represents a $140 million investment.

About half of UConn's downtown Hartford student body is grad students who skew toward business and social-work programs, with some studying education and public policy.

"The rest are undergraduates from a wide range of backgrounds," Overmyer-Velazquez said.

Community connections

Prospective UConn students list their top two of UConn's five campuses. Those not accepted to Storrs are considered by the Hartford campus if they put it on their wish list. Some students list the Hartford campus as their first choice.

There are currently nine majors students can complete in their entirety at UConn Hartford. But many students split their time between Hartford and Storrs, while others are part of the "Spring to Storrs" program in which they spend a semester in Hartford before transferring to the main campus.

"Every student has total accessibility to all the services on the Storrs campus," said Robin Shefts, assistant director of UConn Hartford's Center for Career Development. "It really doesn't matter if you're on the Hartford campus or the Stamford campus, you are a UConn student."

Shefts' department has been working to create a direct pipeline from UConn Hartford to the local business community.

Companies ranging from Travelers and Target to TheaterWorks have participated in the Center for Career Development's Career Conversations series, Shefts said. The program brings people from area businesses to the Hartford Times building to talk to students about their companies, and what hiring officers look for in job candidates.

"It's really to meet our students and have conversations about opportunities, and where they may want to intern or eventually seek employment," said Shefts, who noted program attendance steadily grew.

UConn Hartford students and faculty are also engaging neighboring businesses as customers.

"I think UConn coming to Hartford has added a whole new level of activity, and specifically to the Front Street area," said Dan Hincks, owner of Infinity Hall & Bistro, the entertainment and restaurant venue a stone's throw away from UConn's campus.

There's a lot more foot traffic in the Front Street area, which, Hincks said, likely leads to more customers, especially for the bars and restaurants there. Additionally, UConn Hartford often rents Infinity Hall for events like orientations.

The influx of thousands of college students into downtown Hartford also represents a huge opportunity for a city in which an increasing number of residential apartments are being built or refurbished, said Brian Boyer, a spokesman for the MetroHartford Alliance.

"We'd love to keep them here after they graduate," Boyer said. "I think what we're seeing is a city that's not falling asleep at five o'clock anymore."

Growing pains, growth

While major problems largely eluded students and faculty at UConn Hartford since it opened last August, there were some growing pains in the first year. While moving onto the campus, many decisions had to be approved by both UConn and the city of Hartford, two large bureaucracies, Overmyer-Velazquez said.

Also, some of the faculty transplanted from the leafy suburb of West Hartford and UConn's other campuses weren't used to aspects of urban life often taken for granted by city-dwellers.

"I think sometimes the aggressive panhandling has been a problem," said Maggie Silver, deputy chief in charge of regional campuses for UConn's police department. "Sometimes there's quite a few homeless individuals in that area, and sometimes people are intimidated."

But aside from that, the UConn police force in Hartford (which is comprised of a lieutenant, two sergeants and five officers) hasn't had much trouble, Silver said. They signed a memorandum of understanding with the Hartford Police Department to establish an information-sharing agreement.

The school is also in talks with Hartford Public Schools about working together to get high school students on UConn Hartford's campus, learning about opportunities there, Overmyer-Velazquez said.

"Putting in the direct linkages will help … show (students) that we're an accessible public education institution," Overmyer-Velazquez said.

As he moves into his second year running UConn Hartford, the campus director is in the preliminary stages of establishing a global urban studies program.

He's had initial conversations with UConn faculty, as well as organizations in Hartford about what such a program would look like. He said it could be a course of study, more of an academic think tank or some sort of combination, but he has a basic concept in mind.

"How can we be a lens or laboratory for understanding these broader problems and questions of how to create healthy, sustainable cities? That's the goal," Overmyer-Velazquez said. "How can we use Hartford and the resources here to tackle those concerns?"

Overmyer-Velazquez said he has noticed more faculty moving into apartments in Hartford, and in coming years sees the school as a big player in the city's growth.

The first year at UConn Hartford was about putting down roots, but the next few will be geared toward planting seeds.

"We're an anchor educational institution, we have students who are busy here, but who are also bringing money to different restaurants or other kinds of businesses," Overmyer-Velazquez said. "(We're) thinking about how we are part of this, the growth and economic development."

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