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October 16, 2023 Corner Office

New UConn Waterbury leader Hoeft to oversee Brass City campus expansion

PHOTO | PETER MORENUS/UCONN Fumiko Hoeft in the Brain Imaging Resource Center at UConn.
Click below for more information about Fumiko Hoeft.
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When Fumiko Hoeft first arrived as interim director of the University of Connecticut’s Waterbury campus in May 2022, she asked students and staff about their favorite local eateries and shopping destinations.

Hoeft was shocked when many reported never venturing off campus into the city to shop or get food. It’s a situation Hoeft, who became the campus’ director as of Dec. 30, 2022, is working to change.

“When you walk around, there are a lot of places that are open, Dominican restaurants, bagel places, cafes, and so on,” Hoeft said.

Hoeft has been working with the city and organizations such as Main Street Waterbury and area chambers of commerce to get more students, faculty and staff enjoying the downtown and its businesses.

Universities can be economic generators for their host communities, notes Hoeft, who hopes the effort will help invigorate Waterbury’s economy.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, who was on the search committee that picked Hoeft, said he has long wanted local UConn students to venture into the city more.

“Fumiko has made it one of her missions to get students to patronize businesses around campus and to get more involved in the community,” O’Leary said. “We are very grateful. We want to see kids walking around downtown.”

O’Leary said he is already seeing more foot traffic since Hoeft’s arrival.

Boosting interaction with the city’s businesses is just one priority for Hoeft, a medical doctor and neurophysiologist, who also serves as director of UConn’s Brain Imaging Research Center.

Passionate about science, her research focuses on brain development and disorders such as dyslexia.

Campus growth, boosting enrollment

Under Hoeft’s leadership, several initiatives are underway.

The Waterbury campus is in the midst of a major expansion effort, which Hoeft is overseeing.

In June, UConn officials approved leasing about 26,300 square feet at 36 North Main St., the historic Odd Fellows Building adjacent to campus. The long-vacant property first needs to be renovated, which is expected to take about a year and a half.

UConn anticipates starting the lease, with an initial annual base rent of $370,000, in either January or August 2025.

The city of Waterbury and the building’s landlord — Green Hub Development III LLC — have received a $10 million grant from the state to renovate the building. Green Hub — a partnership of developer Joseph Grammando and financier Louis Forster — will invest an additional $5 million toward the rehabilitation project.

UConn plans to use the extra space for instruction, wet and dry research, healthcare clinical training and simulation, and an incubator, makerspace and venture studio.

“We want to leverage the strong research-oriented faculty members and grow research in the area of neurosciences, health, public epidemiology, biology, and so on — so we’ll be expanding in that direction,” said Hoeft.

Hoeft plans to move her current Storrs-based lab there. The plans were underway before Hoeft’s arrival, and the project has faced some challenges along the way, taking more time than originally anticipated.

Hoeft is also focused on boosting enrollment at the Waterbury campus — and she sees increasing awareness of its offerings as pivotal. Since Hoeft’s arrival, Waterbury enrollment has been flat.

As of September 2023, UConn Waterbury had 760 undergraduates, school figures show. In comparison, in fall 2022, enrollment in Waterbury was at 768.

“I think the awareness has been lagging in terms of the high-caliber academic programs that we offer and the facilities we have,” Hoeft said.

UConn Waterbury has been bringing potential students to campus with field trips and events to help boost awareness.

For example, in a partnership with the city, UConn Waterbury this year launched a new annual W.I.S.H. Fest, which stands for “Waterbury Innovation, Sustainability and Health.” It brought hundreds of Waterbury public school students to campus for a health expo and festival, while also exposing them to the college’s facilities and offerings.

Continuing to promote diversity is also a priority for Hoeft, who noted the campus’ host city has a diverse student population.

UConn Waterbury is federally designated as a Hispanic-, Asian American- and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution, which allows it to access grants to support students, Hoeft said.

The Waterbury campus also recently opened a new Academic Achievement Center that offers supplemental instruction, academic coaching, mentoring and workshops.

New this fall is a federally funded College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Fellows research program that aims to help prepare students for careers in agriculture, health and natural resources.

Hoeft also aims to expand opportunities for students to get a master’s or professional degree in one year instead of two. She also wants to expand student employment opportunities, through internships and other efforts.

“We want to focus on student success, really giving additional support or tools so they can succeed in the future,” Hoeft said.

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