Youthful, creative and passionate are the three words Justin Raymer, the director of Campus Recreation at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), used to describe his team. From the average age of staff members to ideas, events and collaborations, the rec team has proved their impact and earned a new home in the heart of campus.
“What we lack in experience, we certainly make up for in effort and creative thinking,” said Raymer. “I think the key to our success is the ability to adapt when needed, proactively engage our campus and demonstrate our value.”
Adaptability and age go hand-in-hand with the rec team as most professional staff are between the ages of 25 and 35, paving the way for innovation and connection with students. “We’re always looking for something new to try,” said Tommy Willis, the associate director of Campus Recreation at EKU. “We’re always going to conferences and events to see what trends are occurring within recreation so we can jump on that bandwagon and be sure to give those opportunities to our students and staff.”
Additionally, a decrease in age gap between professional and student staff can allow employees to be more relatable, establish better connections and encourage shared ideas. For example, Willis described how staff members will share changes they would have made at the institutions where they were previously employed, then make those changes to better their own department. Through their student staff members, they also encourage sharing fresh ideas of what they would like to see as well.
In addition to staff ideas, the rec team is consistently engaging the campus community through events and collaborations with other departments on campus to expand their reach, and learn the community’s wants and needs.
“It demonstrates we are an EKU first, and not a ‘me first,’ department,” described Raymer. “Given the state of higher education in Kentucky — specifically for our smaller institutions — pooled resources are the best way to be impactful and efficient with our programming.”
The rec team regularly collaborates with the division of Student Affairs, as well as departments within the College of Health Sciences, Business and Education. One of the largest annual events includes the campus-wide “Big E Bash” for nearly 2,000 incoming students. “We typically invest a lot into this event in order to make a lasting impression on our new students,” said Raymer. “We want them to identify our resources and realize the benefits we have to offer during their time at EKU.”
To make this impression, the event features a multitude of novelty fair foods and activities such as inflatable games, bubble soccer, Archery Tag competitions, fitness challenges, impaired driving simulations, a live DJ and a foam party. Additionally, each department area at the event will come up with their own promotional item — like free T-shirts — designed to market their program schedule for the upcoming semester.
“Rec the Ravine” is a similar annual event that has become a tradition at the beginning of the fall semester. It takes place in the heart of campus, is open to all students, faculty and staff, and regularly sees over 3,000 attendees.
Smaller annual events in conjunction with the campus health promotion program — dedicated to the education and promotion of student health concerns and behaviors — include “OctSoberfest” and “Spring Vibes,” consistently seeing over 300 students in attendance. “These programs allow us to have a much broader network to collaborate with on programming and initiatives to achieve similar strategic goals,” said Raymer.
Brent Parmer is the executive director of Campus Life, overseeing Campus Recreation, Student Life and First Year Experience, and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. He encourages all staff to think outside the box and collaborate with as many departments on campus as possible. “During challenging financial times, multiple budgets and staff are always better than one,” said Parmer. “We have opportunities to introduce ourselves and our services to students who may not be familiar with what we do if we are partnering with departments outside of our niche.”
Through this encouragement and a plethora of opportunities, Willis described the rec team as always having a hand at the table. “The reason we are requested to do so much is because people see our programs and they see success,” he elaborated. “We’re all programmers, so when it comes to programming, we’re helpful to a lot of other departments on campus to help them see where there might be gaps or where we can add for the future.”
Collaboration and events are not the only way the rec team demonstrated their value and gained a new home. “Campus Recreation tracked usage and worked with the office of Institutional Effectiveness to determine the impact facility usage had on our students,” said Dr. Billy Martin, the associate vice president and senior Student Affairs officer at EKU. “We found numerous positive correlations between usage and GPA, retention and recruitment.”
Below are a few of EKU’s Campus Rec Student Impact statistics:
This data was central to gaining support for an increased student fee, and when coupled with national research to develop a consensus on student impact, the rec team was in line to take their place at the heart of campus.
Dr. Martin also listed two major components that determined the placement of the new recreation center. “The first was a visionary president who wanted to complete a campus revitalization plan by engaging the center of campus,” he said. “The second component was developing a new master plan.”
The new Student Recreation Center is one piece of three projects within the center of campus, including a renovated student center and newly constructed dining facility. To attest even more to the special centralized location, two residence halls were razed to make room for the new rec center, still leaving three nearby residence halls.
“Until now, we have been a ‘destination,’ meaning you only come to that side of campus if you are an athlete, or you are coming specifically to the rec center,” said Raymer. “Now we expect to see a great increase in visits, both from the students and the rest of the campus community because of our proximity, and the variety of programs and amenities we will offer.”
Because of the new facility, the department expects to see an increase in intramural and club sports as well, especially with the addition of an esports gaming center. It will further demonstrate impact on recruitment, retention and the broadening scope of how EKU is recognized.
“We want to be on the forefront within our state when it comes to esports programming,” said Raymer. “Luckily many other schools have paved the way, and we have leaned heavily on what their policies and procedures are with regard to managing this space. Wichita State and Western Michigan have set good examples for us to follow.”
Other amenities within the new facility include a multi-activity court (MAC) gymnasium featuring Kiefer USA flooring and Athletica dasher boards; a 19-lane climbing wall, three group fitness studios and a fitness testing lab; a larger cardio and strength area outfitted by 123 Wellness Inc. and Direct Fitness Solutions to provide CORE, Matrix and Precor equipment; an outdoor terrace for programs and events; and a pool — a previously non-existing amenity within Campus Recreation.
The department worked with Aquatic Designs Inc. to create a four-lane lap and recreational pool with zero-depth entry, a vortex, and a spa area for programming and revenue opportunities — one of the amenities the staff is most excited about.
“It provides new opportunities such as ‘learn to swim’ programs, birthday parties, facility rentals, aqua aerobics, open swim, intramural battleship, water polo, volleyball, underwater hockey, etc.,” said Raymer.
Another highlighted amenity in the rec center is about the MAC gym and the potential it can also bring. “We have a million ideas we can use it for,” said Willis. “With the addition of that space, we’re going to be able to reach more international students, and more diverse populations we haven’t been able to reach before.”
All in all, the process of growing the department and earning its new home on campus has been a journey for Raymer and his team. Raymer came to EKU in 2015 as the assistant director of competitive sports and camps, was promoted to the senior assistant director of Campus Recreation in 2017, and officially became the director of Campus Recreation in November 2018. The biggest lesson he’s learned along the way is “attitude is everything.”
“If you’re in a leadership position, those you’re leading will likely reflect your attitude when it comes to a particular task, event, committee, department or person,” he said. “You must consider if and how you have shaped their perspective. Stop yourself from projecting a bias and allow others to develop their own understanding.”
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