A not so long time ago, on a collegiate landscape not so far away, students and many higher education professionals viewed campus rec centers as “the gym,” a place you might go to exercise or play intramural sports. Rec centers were perceived as the place where “gym rats” and “muscle heads” spent their time between, after or perhaps even during class hours. These rec centers were not centers for positive lifestyles to all campus populations.
However, collegiate recreational professionals have always known that rec centers are special places. Professionals in our field have long fought the good fight to dispel the “just a gym” myth. While it has not always been easy, rec professionals have done an amazing job of reinventing the perception of campus rec centers by promoting their vast, intrinsic value to both students and administrators.
Romayne Eaker-Kelly, director of recreation and health promotion at Montclair State University (MSU), has championed this effort on her campus. “The MSU Student Recreation Center is ‘not just a gym.’ The center is a thriving hub of activity for students, offering something for everyone”, said Eaker-Kelly. “The MSU Student Recreation Center has a stabilizing effect on the lives of our students by providing a safe alternative space for them to be active or sedentary, to just be without judgment. It is not a gym. It’s a lifestyle.”
The creation of this lifestyle for students at all campus recreation centers is achieved through several strategic areas that positively impact student lives:
1. The promotion of well-being
2. Becoming “centers” of the campus community.
3. Diversity of programming.
4. Setting students on a path of career preparedness.
5. A commitment to inclusivity.
The Promotion of Well-being
NIRSA has been a driving force behind the collegiate well-being movement, with campus rec professionals embracing the notion of well-being promotion well before many other areas in higher ed. Marrying the mission of campus rec to the core values of the well-being movement has created new pathways for our profession.
Rec centers have become destinations where students can not only explore fitness and wellness, but all the dimensions of well-being that contribute to their holistic development. By embracing well-being, our profession has transformed rec centers into vibrant, multi-dimensional facilities that transcend the original concept of “gyms” that offer terrific growth opportunities for students.
Becoming “Centers” of the Campus Community
There was a time when student unions/centers were viewed exclusively as the nexus of student activity on a campus. Rec centers attracted the sporty crowd but were not for everyone. Times have truly changed. Rec centers have evolved to meet the growing demands and needs of contemporary college students, which has led to a proliferation of the type of spaces found in them. Lounges, esports arenas, ninja training courses and well-being-oriented spaces including spa amenities and relaxation rooms now sit beside gymnasiums, weight rooms and fitness studios.
The modern rec center literally does have something for everyone. Campus rec professionals have identified this need to diversify their facilities, and in turn, have created dynamic and inviting hubs on campus that are just as appealing to the widest population of students.
Diversity of Programming
Exciting new programming has come along with the diversification of rec center spaces. Club and intramural sports along with fitness classes and swim lessons will always have a home in rec centers, but campus rec programmers have welcomed the challenge of offering new and often non-traditional programs for the rec world.
Regularly scheduled arts and crafts programming has become a staple at many rec centers. Well-being oriented programs, with themes ranging from self-care to financial literacy, are present as well. Esports — at intramural, club and intercollegiate levels — are now in campus rec departments. With the traditional programming of campus rec now augmented by a vast array of new offerings, rec centers have become a destination for a broader student audience than ever before.
Setting Students on the Path of Career Preparedness
It is a simple truth. Most rec centers could not function without student employees. While rec centers are among the largest employers of students on most campuses, rec professionals recognize the need to make employment at a rec center a transformational experience that prepares students for careers after college.
Career readiness programs are now a staple for many campus rec departments. Teaching and fostering transferable skills, promoting progressive leadership development, and offering interview training and resume writing workshops are all elements of the programs. Campus rec departments now pride themselves on preparing lifeguards, intramural officials, building managers, etc. for a career journey that not only lasts for four years but rather for a lifetime.
At MSU, all campus rec student employees are “student leaders.” Elevating the role of student employees is central to the mission of all campus rec departments. By offering a comprehensive employment experience to students, rec centers have become one of the most desirable places for students to work.
A Commitment to Inclusivity
Inclusivity is a value that NIRSA has long championed. Campus rec professionals have embraced the need for inclusivity and built rec center communities that are welcoming to all, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Rec centers are a destination for residential and commuter students. The diverse programs and facilities offered at the modern rec center have created a melting pot of all campus populations in an environment that is fun, social, meaningful and life affirming.
Executive leadership is noticing the recent evolution of campus rec centers. Campus rec professionals have worked tirelessly to transform our field into one that is contemporary and in step with the current needs of our students. Validation for this work is in the words of student development leadership who recognize the inherent value of campus recreation and appreciate the importance of rec centers on their campuses:
“The importance of having a comprehensive, nimble and accessible campus recreation program on a university campus is clear,” said Dawn Soufleris, the vice president for student development and campus life at MSU. “The holistic wellness of students is a leading variable in terms of student success and belonging. College students need to be able to exercise their minds, their bodies and their spirits; colleges and universities must respond by providing access to a variety of activities, wellness resources, and engagement opportunities that meet the diverse needs of our students. Campus recreation can be a driver for student success in ways other areas cannot. By providing wellness opportunities at a variety of levels, students not only have self-efficacy when it comes to their own wellness but can take these skills and experiences with them when they graduate.”
Anthony Skevakis, the associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Towson University, reiterated the importance of rec centers have on positive lifestyles.
“When I think about the history of recreation centers even as far back as the 90’s, they were focused on providing a general indoor recreation space that was gym like,” he said. “They featured practice courts, weight rooms, showers and maybe a pool. They met the mission of fitness and exercise, in that day. Today’s recreation centers are much more than a gym. They are centers that extend beyond basic recreation to provide spaces for the many dimensions of wellness and holistic well-being for students at all different experience levels.
“Modern recreation centers feature opportunities to engage in indoor and outdoor fitness, intramural and club sports leagues, meditation and mindfulness activities, walking tracks, personal training and exercise coaching, multi-purpose courts, activity studios, specialized instructor guided classes, rock wall climbing, ropes courses, physical assessments, esports, equipment rental, hiking, on-demand virtual classes, bicycle rentals, obstacle courses, outdoor adventures, and a variety of aquatics programs like swimming and SCUBA courses,” Skevakis added. “They have become a one-stop-shop to engage your mind, body, and soul. Campus rec is ‘more than a gym.’”