MERIDEN — Students attending classes at Middlesex Community College’s Meriden Center say they’d like to see more secure parking at night, a college bookstore, more social and academic clubs, a place to gather, and reliable wireless Internet.
For its part, the city hopes to see more student foot traffic downtown to further its goals of becoming a thriving, transit-oriented district.
Both the city and the college say there’s a like-mindedness between the two parties to work closely on partnerships and programs that help students while stimulating the city’s downtown. But even as enrollment climbs, plans for expansion are stalled at the state level.
“There are a lot of moving pieces with the Board of Regents,” said Tami Christopher, director of Meriden Center. “We are working on setting up a meeting with Mayor Manny Santos, and the college president for strategic planning and how it affects the college. One of the best things Meriden can do is to advocate for us at the state level.”
As classes wrapped up for the semester and exams began last week, students said they were satisfied for the most part with the education and services they get at Meriden Center. But they, educators and the city have wish lists, they said could break down some of the challenges to students and improve the center’s visibility in the city.
Sheila Ellison is a mother of three children who has been taking classes since 1999. She drives to campus. Other students take the bus, walk or get rides.
Students who commute can park in the private garage behind the college for a fee, or park in one of two free city-owned lots on Church Street and Colony Street. After 5 p.m., the parking garage is free and some students who arrived earlier leave the center to move their cars closer.
Ellison is uneasy walking the distance to the lots after dark and wishes there was more security at night.
“I don’t feel comfortable at night,” Ellison said. “There are corners. You don’t recognize faces.”
Christopher said the city keeps a watchful eye on lighting and ways to improve visibility and there have been few problems with the parking lots. But if police wanted to add a foot patrol near the college or patrol in cruisers specifically when classes are dismissed, it would help students feel more secure, she said. The entrance to the college is across the street from the police department and court complex, but the lot on Church Street where students can park for free is behind the parking garage and not within sight of the police department.
Middlesex has seen steady enrollment growth since opening the branch here more than a decade ago on South Broad Street. Today, it enrolls 601 full- and part-time students, the highest enrollment to date. Of the total student population, 39 percent take classes before noon, 19 percent take classes between noon and 5 p.m. and 42 percent are in class from 5 to 9:40 p.m.
The number of students taking courses in Meriden is up by 2.2 percent and the number of students taking more classes here is up by 5.5 percent, Christopher said.
The school occupies three floors of a five-story building directly across from the city’s courthouse. A courtyard separates it from neighboring businesses on the east side of the building. It recently expanded by opening the first floor with a welcome desk, a learning lab and community center. The courtyard provides a welcome bit of greenspace for students in the summer while they wait for the bus or meet with one another.
Most of the students arrive, take their classes then leave, said Jennifer White, of Higganum, who tutors on campus three days a week. Others like to stick around and visit the learning lab where they can access computers and receive tutoring or they visit Café Dolce, where there is free Wi-Fi.
“A lot of students here rely on public transportation which adds to the disconnect,” said White, an information technology major.
White said students who take buses need to schedule their classes at the main campus in Middletown to coincide with the M-Link bus routes. Students travel an hour and a half both ways sometimes, just to pick up textbooks, which are only sold on the Middletown campus.
“I don’t really go there (Middletown),” said Ide Diaz, a full-time multi-media major who walks to Meriden Center. “I just go here.”
Christopher has inquired about possibly adding later bus routes from Middletown that coincide with class schedules. Currently, the last bus leaves downtown Middletown at 4:50 p.m., 10 minutes before classes there conclude at 5 p.m. So Meriden students taking afternoon courses only offered at the Middletown campus have no public transportation back to Meriden.
“It just misses one of our classes,” Christopher said. “Some of our students have a hard time getting there.”
Christopher met with Connecticut Transit officials in Meriden to inquire about extended hours back and forth to Middletown. She learned that Middletown’s bus service, Middletown Area Transit, runs later than Meriden’s but is separate from Meriden’s transportation authority, and creating more routes to the city would complicate other services.
The college funded a shuttle for students two years ago, but found that only 15 students used it during the week and Middlesex canceled the service, said college spokeswoman Marlene Olson.
Jacklyn Orellana, a business major who walks to the center, said she’s worried about the day she has to go the Middletown campus, but she knows it’s inevitable.
“I’d like to see more business classes here,” she said. “There isn’t as many here as the other complex.”
But students can now earn an associate’s degree in manufacturing and general studies without leaving the center. The school expects to add human services, business and criminal justice degree programs in the near future, Christopher said.
Beyond expanded course offerings, Orellana and others want a place where students can gather or study with access to wireless Internet. The school, which is within the area served by a city-funded Wi-Fi hot spot, gets spotty service that stops inside the building.
It’s a priority that is being addressed by the Board of Regents, Christopher said about wireless Internet.
The city has beefed up the hot spot by adding a 5Ghz frequency and upgrading antennas. The hot spot was only intended to provide wireless service along sidewalks and courtyards in the West Main and Colony street area, not to reach from front to back inside the buildings, said Stephen Montemurro, MIS director for the city. But the upgrade could allow more students to connect wireless devices inside the center.
“Middlesex may not be aware that the network is operational since we just completed the project late last week,” Montemurro said.
The community room that opened last spring is used by the public and the school for presentations and other formal meetings with the college dean or others. Its walls display some college announcements and there are tables and a equipment for presentations.
“But you can’t really hang out there,” Orellana said of the community room.
White said students who take public transportation have a lot of waiting time that could be spent in a student activity center.
“A bookstore would be amazing,” said Shardaya Grant, a full-time student who prefers to stay close to Meriden.
Last spring, Sara Owen, owner of Café Dolce, and Christopher researched the idea of opening a bookstore inside the café. It would have changed her business model, but Owen knows her café is in the unique position of helping to support student life and draw more business downtown.
Owen wanted to sell Middlesex merchandise, including sweatshirts , T-shirts, books, notebooks, etc. Merchandise displayed in the café’s storefront would be a boost to the college, which has modest signage on campus.
“It would be a win-win,” Owen said. “Because it’s a branch, there is nowhere for the kids to congregate.”
But Owen learned that Middlesex’s contract with Follett’s Bookstore prohibits wholesaling the merchandise through other retailers, she said.
The venture made little sense if she couldn’t turn some profit and Owen dropped the idea. But she continues to work with Christopher to make the café more available to students. And the bookstore agreed to eliminate shipping costs for Meriden students who order books online, Christopher said.
Though Follett’s has the contract to sell books and merchandise for the college, other vendors are invited to present proposals, Olson added.
Owen offers a 10 percent discount to Middlesex students and sees about 10 students on average per day. But she said most of them carry in their coffee and their food. She also opens up her café to professors and instructors to host meetings there and has tried staying open later at night to accommodate student traffic. But while making the café available to instructors for meetings has worked out well during the day, it isn’t profitable to remain open later at night, she said.
To some commuters, who might only visit Cafe Dolcé before or after class, more shops and restaurants downtown isn’t going to determine where they attend school.
“No, we don’t need it,” said Alex Ortiz, a full-time criminal justice major finishing up a two-year degree.
Most of the students interviewed for this story said they chose the school because it was close by, supportive and comfortable. Some plan to eventually transfer to four-year institutions either in Middletown or other state universities.
Christopher points to studies that say community college graduates tend to stay in the cities or towns where they go to school, leading to a more educated and skilled population.
The city hopes the students will also add to the foot traffic downtown that could generate more commerce. City officials meet regularly with college leaders, most recently about the impact of being within the transit-oriented district.
“We had a lengthy conversation about the TOD effects,” said Juliet Burdelski, the city’s economic development director. “It’s in their interest to get many people to want to come to Meriden and live in Meriden. I know they have some immediate space needs. They want to make it more of a campus.”
Burdelski said the college is restricted by its own structure when it comes to making decisions on where to locate and what to add. Instead of those decisions being made at the local level, they are made in a centralized office.
“They are subject to state procurement programs,” Burdelski said. “It will really benefit the community to have those conversations and discussions with them rather than a central system.”
Middlesex recently applied for a grant that would allow it to partner in another program with the Meriden Housing Authority. The new program would allow students to gain certification in geo-thermal installation that would allow them to work on construction sites such as the one planned for the Yale Acres public housing complex.
Burdelski, who is a strong supporter of “town and gown” programs, is also putting together a project called Project Storefront that calls on area artists and art students from the college to dress up empty storefronts.
The city has also hired interns from the college in its purchasing, personnel and planning offices, she said.
“We’re trying to build on the center,” she said. “We have a college that is definitely a huge asset.”
Former Meriden City Manager Roger Kemp, who now teaches at the University of New Haven, recently presented a study on collaborative relationships between cities and colleges to an international audience. A healthy relationship between the two can result in shared resources and lower costs. It can also be instrumental in broadening a city’s knowledge base and helping entice more institutions to move in.
Kemp said he once had a dream that the city might refurbish the former hospital on Cook Avenue and contract with a university to open a branch on the site.
“The old hospital would made a great campus,” Kemp said. “Meriden can do more. The more students the better.”
Burdelski said the idea was intriguing and the building falls within the radius of the TOD. But the city would have to do more studies on what can be salvaged from the run-down building.
In recent years, the city, the public schools and the Meriden YMCA have all partnered with Middlesex on programs aimed at helping students at all levels.
Some of the current partnership programs include; babysitting and membership discounts offered to Middlesex staff and students by the YMCA, a writing and science program for gifted eighth graders featuring Saturday visits to the campus; and a program that allows high school students to take college-level classes for credit, and even enroll in certificate programs such as Certified Nurses Aide program.
The college has a part-time staff member to start up the Meriden Center Student Association. The group has access to funds from student activity fees to run events and workshops. The college also has an active student chess group and student gardening group. A new effort now underway connects high school clubs with college clubs. There are also an abundance of internship opportunities at local businesses and non-profits, Christopher said.
Getting college students into the community is a challenge for the student population that enrolls at the Meriden Center, however, because many students are older than traditional college students and single mothers with a shortage of time.
White, the Meriden campus tutor from Higganum, is a single mother in her mid-thirties. Currently an information technology student at the Middletown campus, White said she is more comfortable at the Meriden Center because so many of the students are older.
“I like being here because they’re motivated,” White said. “There are more women here.”
With the help of college personnel, White hopes to see more clubs at the center to get more students into the community and has a endless list of low-cost or no-cost possibilities.
“We need more clubs here in Meriden,” she said. “It’s good for leadership skills and the community providing services.”
As a member of the computer club in Middletown, White participates in charitable events such as a computer clinic for people who need to get their computers fixed but can’t afford a commercial service. They also host e-cycling events to help people dispose of their electronics.
She said the college is forming the Meriden Center Student Association to help close the gulf between the two campuses. There is also the Human Services Student Association.
“If we can get them started they can be incredibly valuable partners with community agencies and businesses,” White said.
The Human Services Student Association has hosted canned good drives to benefit the Amazing Grace food pantry in Middletown. It can do the same here, she said.
Donna Hylton, faculty advisor for the Computer Club, splits her time between Middletown and Meriden teaching classes and building community and business participation.
“I would like to see students provided with more opportunities to experience technology in a variety of settings that goes beyond the classroom experience,” Hylton said. “The Computer Club is planning for more events in the Meriden Center, but we would love to be able to do more.”
Hylton suggests that the city become a technology partner with Meriden Center and develop ways to support the exploration of technology on campus. Local businesses and vendors may be able to demonstrate emerging technology on campus, and perhaps the local school board and college can formalize a technology pathway from the high schools to employment.
Christopher agrees that Middlesex students deserve more opportunities while the community reaps the benefit.
“It can only help to spread those students around,” she said. “It’s nice to see these things moving forward.”