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December 17, 2018 Five We Watched in 2018

Free leads Univ. of St. Joseph through year of firsts

University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free spent the year chairing the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education.

In her third year on the job, University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free oversaw the transformation of the private Catholic college into a co-ed institution.

Based in West Hartford, USJ for the first time admitted male undergraduate students this past fall, with most of those 96 enrollees playing on four new men's sports teams.

The 86-year-old school this year also rolled out four new academic programs — sports management and promotion, bioinformatics, computer data science and health sciences — and several new clubs. The new majors are already gaining popularity, Free said.

Free's push for co-ed programming has raised the school's enrollment to a five-year high (910 undergraduates). The 11.2 percent enrollment gain, she says, has also boosted club participation and attendance at its dining hall, recreation center and athletics games.

USJ is also becoming less of a commuter school, with more students staying on campus during the weekends.

And those trends are expected to continue.

School officials will have a larger pool of applicants to choose from as they reach a projected enrollment peak of 1,100 students in the coming years. Applications this fall were up more than 20 percent.

“We are always doing something new to try to keep up with changing student interests and what employers need,” said Free, adding USJ will unveil new men's lacrosse and women's field hockey teams in 2019. “I think it brings a whole new group of students to campus, in terms of another group who would be interested in some of these new majors.”

In addition to spearheading USJ's co-ed expansion, Free also spent the year as chair of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education, a regional leadership group promoting the Capital City as a college town.

The 11-member consortium — including school officials from Trinity College, University of Hartford, UConn Hartford, Central Connecticut State University and others — met several times this year to lay the groundwork for new internship and career fairs to better connect the region's students with employers.

Free says members also developed a branding competition, in which groups of students early next year will collaborate to develop marketing campaigns to better market Hartford.

She estimates there are roughly 34,000 college students in the Hartford region.

“I don't think people appreciate how many students we have right here,” Free said. “If we can have people think about downtown Hartford as the place to go eat, hangout, to live, I think it will help the businesses and it's good for the students.”

USJ this year also took major steps in planning a $10 million renovation of its aging student center, McGovern Hall, and a $16 million expansion of its O'Connell Athletic Center.

The school will break ground on the student-center renovation in May, with completion by year-end 2019. Meantime, the athletics-center expansion will debut in 2020.

The new athletics center, Free says, will accommodate more student and community use, and larger crowds for its new men's basketball team, which has garnered national attention under head coach Jim Calhoun.

“I think the athletics on campus can help to generate the type of environment that is attractive to all students,” she said.

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