The Wilmington Star News
Published: December 9, 2012
UNCW reaches out to create bridges with community
By Pressley Baird, Pressley.Baird@StarNewsOnline.com
When Patrice Willetts moved to Wilmington in 1983, she knew it was a college town – but only vaguely.
She took some adult classes. She walked around the campus. But for the most part, the University of North Carolina Wilmington wasn’t what she thought about when she thought about her newly adopted town.
Fast-forward almost three decades, and Willetts’ knowledge of the university has gone from fuzzy to intimate. Part of that comes from her role as a member of the university-community task force, which formed eight years ago to improve the relationship between students living off-campus and their home-owning neighbors.
But part of it comes from her two teachers.
The first is Willetts’ daughter, Victoria. She’s in her senior year at UNCW. She’s enrolled in the honors program, active in her sorority, an orientation leader.
Victoria “has made a life for herself there,” Willetts said. “She has really jumped in 110 percent.”
The second was Willetts’ mother, Gloria Heissner. Before Heissner passed away in May, at 88 years old, she “was (at UNCW) all the time,” Willetts said. She took Italian classes, went to “Live from the Met” opera performances, attended Valentine’s Day dances.
From Willetts’ perspective, the university offered exactly what each one wanted.
“My daughter has been well-served,” Willetts said. “My mother was well-served.”
How do you convey to everyone else what the Willetts family has learned about the college? That’s what Jenni Harris is trying to figure out.
She’s the assistant to the chancellor for community partnerships, a position Chancellor Gary Miller created last September in one of his first actions as chancellor. As Harris sees it, her job is to continue connecting the university with the community and find a way to articulate those connections.
“What we do have are great community connections – we’re involved in lots of different things,” Harris said. “What we don’t have is any way to capture what we have and to measure the impact of it, to make sure that we’re doing the right things.”
Defining those contributions is up to Harris, who makes $89,760 in her position.
Taped to the wall in her office is a poster-sized sheet of paper with 28 items on it. It’s a to-do list on steroids, representing all of the individual projects she’s working on at the moment. Some of the bullet points are smaller in scale, such as the Paint the Town Teal project that puts UNCW banners and billboards throughout Wilmington.
Others are bigger. Harris is revamping the Swain Center, which provides continuing education classes to people in business, and expanding those classes to multiple departments.
But not everyone notices the positive parts. Harris remembers a conversation she had with an elected official soon after she took the job.
“I was told (by that person), ‘Well, you know, UNCW’s always just a last resort’ as a choice for a university,” she said.
Statistics from a 2011 admissions office survey show that 92 percent of freshmen surveyed said UNCW was their first-choice school. So the statement “floored” Harris, she said.
“When somebody like that in the community who has an elevated role says that, you have to stop and say, ‘Hold on, what are we doing wrong? We need to educate the community a little better,’” she said.
Part of that education began with the university-community task force that includes Patrice Willetts as a member. Before that group began, many homeowners in the neighborhoods surrounding the university had complaints about their student neighbors’ trash, noise and parking habits. The attempt to “blend the lifestyles,” as Willetts puts it, wasn’t working.
“You have a family that’s retired that likes to go to bed at 10 or 11 o’clock at night” living next to “students who start partying at 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” Willetts said.
Until the city and the university stepped in and created the task force, that relationship was far from harmonious, Willetts said. But opening up the avenues of conversation has alleviated much of those worries, she said.
“When we first started, we had many more items on our to-do list,” she said. “We’re down to the constants, the ones that will always be there.”
Before Victoria Willetts was a student at UNCW, she didn’t know much about it. Growing up in Wilmington, she’d been on campus for various events. But UNCW “was always just kind of there,” she said.
“UNCW is a little bit isolated from the community,” she said. “It’s not like campuses like N.C. State where they’re all mixed together. (UNCW) is like its own little doughnut hole.”
But now, halfway through her senior year, she can point to a wide variety of things that make her glad she chose UNCW over the other schools she got into — including N.C. State, Penn State and Clemson
The research she’s done is a big part of that. Willetts has been doing research in psychology, which is her major, for two years now. Having that opportunity as an undergraduate student is rare and valuable, she said.
And as a campus orientation leader, she got to see what drew other students to the university. Sometimes it was a specific major or program, but more often than not, it was just a feeling.
“They talk about the academic programs,” she said. “But they also say, ‘It just felt like home as soon as I stepped on campus.’”
Finding a way to bottle that is next on the university’s to-do list.
Pressley Baird: 343-2328
On Twitter: @PressleyBaird