Mount Mercy grad center thrives off the beaten path

New school sits a mile and a half from main campus

Vanessa Miller
Published: February 12 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:31 am in
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On any given evening, in a quiet Cedar Rapids neighborhood among residential homes and apartment buildings, hundreds of Mount Mercy University graduate students head to class.

The private university’s new CRST International Graduate Center, at 1599 Wenig Road NE, sits about a mile and a half from Mount Mercy’s main campus, at 1330 Elmhurst Drive NE, where most of the more than 1,800 students take classes.

And Mount Mercy graduate student Michael Lown, for one, likes it that way.

“It’s nice to be removed from the younger population,” said Lown, 37, of North Liberty. “It doesn’t make you feel quite so old.”

The center, despite its separation from the main campus, hosts a dozen classrooms, a 200-seat auditorium, computer lab, coffee shop, common areas and a marriage-and-family therapy clinic.

It houses all the university’s relatively new graduate studies, including master’s degree programs in business administration, education, nursing, marriage and family therapy, and strategic leadership – the latest addition, which debuted this month.

Mount Mercy’s separate graduate center differs from other colleges and universities in Iowa that offer graduate studies on their main campuses. And when Mount Mercy first started offering graduate studies five years ago, administrators didn’t necessarily plan to move the programs off-site, said Tom Castle, assistant provost and dean of adult programs for Mount Mercy.

“We weren’t looking for a graduate center,” he recalled.

But that was before the former U.S. Army Reserve Center buildings were vacated in 2011 – with a new $38 million Cedar Rapids Armed Forces Reserve Center opening across town. The former army and naval reserve training center was deemed surplus U.S. government property, and Mount Mercy seized the opportunity.

It took possession in October 2012 using a federal grant that required occupants use the site for educational and administrative purposes. That grant covered the full cost of the property purchase, and much of the center’s renovations were paid for with a $2.1 million gift from Dyan and John Smith on behalf of CRST International.

“It best suited our needs because it was a military education facility,” Castle said. “We were able to transition it to a higher education facility easily.”

Mercy’s 293 graduate students began attending classes in the 34,494-square-foot center in August, according to Castle. That’s more than administrators originally projected, and Mount Mercy’s graduate studies are continuing to grow, he said.

With its new master’s degree of strategic leadership taking off and more programming in the works, Castle said, “We would expect and hope that our graduate enrollment should remain strong.”

The new center is poised for that growth, he said, as only about half of its 12 to 14 classrooms are being used at this time. And, according to Castle, much of the activity happens after 5 p.m. – as many graduate students also are working professionals.

“We could practically double and still be in good shape,” he said. “And then we could grow our daytime programs as well. We sort of have unlimited potential out there.”

Even though the center is the only academic facility in the area, Castle said he thinks it has benefited the neighborhood. Aesthetically, for example, renovation crews took down barbed wire fences, making it possible for passersby to walk across the grounds.

And graduate students seem to be thriving on the detached site.

“There is a really nice little culture that has developed here because they have the place to themselves,” he said. “When they were on the main campus, they didn’t know which students were graduate students and which were not.”

He said the center allows for classes to be close together, and it makes transportation and parking easier. Students occasionally have to attend a class with the larger Mount Mercy student population, but Castle said, “We try to be a one-stop service center for them.”

Lown, who also works as the recruitment coordinator for graduate programs at Mount Mercy, said he thinks the separate graduate campus has helped attract more students to the university. In some cases, he said, the center has served to inform the community about its new graduate programming.

“Mount Mercy has had a strong identity in Cedar Rapids for years,” he said. “But the graduate programs are new, and some people weren’t aware that we offered them.”

As a graduate student himself seeking a master’s degree in business administration, Lown said he spends little time on the main campus and appreciates avoiding the long, cold treks to class.

“And I think it has given the graduate programs a bit of its own identity,” he said.

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