Serendipity has occurred at North Carolina State University. While your mind might initially flash to the John Cusack movie, the term actually reflects fortunate happenstance. The evolution of University Recreation at NC State is a result of hard work and determination, but a little bit of unexpected good luck, or serendipity, played a role as well.
“I always go back to right person, right place and right time,” said Eric Hawkes, the director of University Recreation at NC State.
A vacancy for director of University Recreation that needed to be filled, a Chancellor and Vice Chancellor who wanted to make NC State exceptional, a team of professional staff dedicated to the mission, and facilities in need of a visionary all came together at the perfect moment in time.
“Historically, NC State has been one of those places that is comfortable with flying under the radar,” explained Hawkes. “But we have a Chancellor who figured that we have an amazing story to tell. A lot of this leadership has led us to really move the needle and create some exceptional spaces and programs that will not only attract new students, but help them persist and graduate.”
With this vision of greatness in mind, since joining the team five years ago, Hawkes has worked to transform University Recreation at NC State. The department is not only working to create a better experience for students, but meet the needs of the entire campus community. They are doing so through three extensive initiatives and projects.
Hawkes compared transforming NC State University Recreation to solving a puzzle. He explained the first piece of the puzzle was updating the recreation facilities, which previously consisted of smaller rooms, tucked away, lacking any visual connection or appeal.
“We knew we couldn’t just start over from scratch,” said Hawkes. “We had to use existing space. Our building right now is 350,000 square feet. We have 11 basketball courts, 30,000 square feet of fitness center space, 18 racquetball courts and two pools — we have got it all. We had the space, but it wasn’t good space. So over the last five years we have been picking off these spaces with a variety of projects to make it right.”
One of the most extensive projects included the $7.6 million locker room renovation, which repurposed and revamped 20,000 square feet of locker room space that had been untouched since 1961. Not only did the renovation upgrade the locker rooms, but it also opened up hallways, creating a more visually appealing look to the facility and adding around 5,000 square feet to fitness space.
Within this new fitness space, Nick Drake, the assistant director of fitness at the university, wanted to expand beyond the traditional approach. “We wanted to break the mold and create more open areas that will allow people to train more in line with how the fitness industry is going today,” said Drake. “Bodyweight training and high intensity interval training are becoming very popular, so we wanted to offer more tools and diversify the offering in terms of cardio to give our users a better, more unique experience.”
When students come to workout in the space, they have a wide variety of options beyond traditional treadmills, strength and selectorized equipment. Drake has filled the space with equipment that is rarely found, even at top-notch gyms. Students can choose from pieces such as the Technogym Skillmill, Cybex Spark, Life Fitness Water Rower or Expresso Upright Bikes.
“I also like the Life Fitness SYNRGY,” said Drake. “That is another piece that, while it may not be new to the market, it is new to NC State. It is that free floating functional tower where students can do hundreds of different exercises just on that one piece of equipment. There are so many variations and it really lends itself to setting up that circuit or high intensity interval training program.”
However, the facilities were just the first part of the puzzle. In 2014, University Recreation at NC State was tasked with leading wellness efforts across campus. “I think historically in recreation we have really excelled in the physical activity dimension of wellness,” said Stacy Connell, the associate director of recreation at NC State. “But when you think about the breadth of wellness, that is not necessarily our bread and butter. We really took a lot of time to prudently decide how we would lead wellness on behalf of campus.”
The department quickly came to the conclusion this was not a task they should handle alone. They formed the Wellness Task Force to connect all of the wellness offerings across campus into a centralized process. The Wellness Task Force included representation from faculty, staff, the Counseling Center, Student Health Services, University Dining, Athletics and various other campus constituents.
“Nothing had really been done from a broad spectrum at NC State in terms of wellness,” explained Connell. “There was a lot of grassroots initiatives that were happening in a siloed manner, but this was the first time we were going to look at it from a collaborative lens. With the Wellness Task Force, we developed a wellness strategy for NC State that is built upon the idea of building a thriving Wolfpack.”
As a result, University Recreation has launched numerous projects to enhance the wellness offerings to the campus community. To start, they conducted an audit of all the wellness services, programs and facilities on campus, making recommendations for collaboration to reduce redundancies and streamline resources for increased efficiency.
Connell explained they are also in the process of launching a campus-wide wellness website that will provide the entire community with a clearinghouse for all wellness information on campus. “It is a one-stop-shop for wellness needs,” said Connell. “Students, faculty and staff currently have to hunt for information, but now it will all be in one area that connects everything together.”
University Recreation is also piloting an Active Study Space within the facility, featuring treadmill desks, bike desks and active sitting balls. “We are really trying to connect to the concept of exercise and cognition and how being physically active allows for students to be able to focus more and retain information better,” said Connell. “We are looking to see how we can create these spaces all around campus — in our libraries, in our student center. We are excited about the feedback and again, it allows collegiate recreation to connect more deeply to the bigger picture of student success.”
As Hawkes explained, his time at NC State has been marked by transformation, but the biggest changes are about to commence. University Recreation is set to embark on a $45 million addition and renovation project that is expected to open in the Fall of 2020. “The project will do several things,” said Hawkes. “It will alleviate some of our code deficiencies within our entire complex. We are going to knock down a building that is out of date and construct a new building that is about 85,000 square feet, that will be our new front door. It will add more fitness and wellness spaces and most importantly, it is going to connect to our existing buildings and really be able to showcase all of the amazing spaces that we have.”
Hawkes is confident that with the new addition, the University Recreation facilities will continue to serve as the hub of health and wellness for the entire campus community. “We recognize that we can’t do wellness by ourselves and that is not our intent,” explained Hawkes. “The Wellness Task Force is really working to connect all of the health and wellness offerings across campus into a centralized process so we can communicate and share all of the opportunities we have in one location. This building will be a major presence that will hopefully support our community.”
Looking toward the future, Hawkes hopes with the new facility and various innovative programs, the NC State community will see University Recreation as the beacon of wellness needs on campus. “When I retire from NC State in 20 years, or however long it is going to be, I expect to hear from our community that we have amazing academic programs, athletic programs, a great out-of-the-classroom experience, but I also want people to say they know NC State cares about their wellbeing. I think this facility and our efforts are going to continue to support that thinking.”