By Lyle James Slack

Verdugo Monthly
Sep 30, 2008

Architecture to accommodate an expanding student body

Later this month Woodbury University will inaugurate two new campus
buildings, the school's first major expansion since it relocated
to Burbank 21 years ago. "The board decided it was time to give the
Business Department some dignity," laughs David Rosen, the university's
Senior Vice President for Academics, "because these people have really
been nomads on campus -- working here, working there."

As it happens, Dr. Rosen's modest office looks out across the
grassy quad directly at the new home of the School of Business, a
handsome, traditional, red brick and mortar edifice. The two-story,
22,000-square-foot structure does give one major nod to modern
architecture: an impressive glass atrium in one corner of the
building. Inside, students will be able to lounge, watch stock reports
on overhead monitors and surf the Internet on laptops connected
to the atrium's wireless network. Elsewhere in the new building,
which can accommodate up to 750 students, is a state-of-the-art
video-conferencing room and a 250-seat auditorium.

If Dr. Rosen presses his nose to the window -- perhaps going a
little cross-eyed -- he might also glimpse a corner of the second
new structure, belonging to the School of Architecture. Tucked into a
corner of the quad, it too is a shade of red but otherwise bares little
resemblance to traditional college architecture. Which is entirely on
purpose. "We hired two different architects," says Woodbury President
Kenneth Nielsen, a slender, silver-haired man who can often be seen
mingling with students attired, invariably, in suit pants, white shirt,
tie and suspenders. "We wanted the architecture studio spaces to be
a little edgier," he says, reflecting perhaps the urban-design focus
of the department.

Nielsen can see the new Architecture building, with its curving,
multi-hued walls of textured concrete blocks, from virtually any
of the half dozen windows in his capacious corner office. "We feel
every Architecture student should have a dedicated studio space from
the moment they come in as freshmen," says Nielsen. " A lot of other
schools don't do that, but we think it's important to create a work
environment similar to what they're going to have when they get out."

The two new buildings -- ringing in at a cost of about $24 million --
are the most dramatic results to date of the strategic plan Nielsen
developed with University trustees when he came aboard 12 years ago. In
a larger sense, they represent the warp speed at which Woodbury has
expanded in recent years.

The school was founded in 1884 (making it one of the oldest
institutions of higher learning in the American West) and for the
first 103 years was a business college. Located on North Main Street
in downtown Los Angeles until 1937, it moved then to modest digs in
the Mid-Wilshire district, eventually adding architecture and computer
information systems programs.

Finally in 1987 the University relocated to its current 22-acre
campus, a former Catholic girls' school on Glenoaks Boulevard, just
west of Buena Vista, and expanded its curriculum to include majors
in psychology, politics and history, animation, fashion design and
communications. Today, with 1500 students, the school also offers
graduate degrees in business administration, architecture and
organizational leadership.

"We grew into all our existing facilities quite rapidly," says
Nielsen. The old chapel was turned into the University library;
the gym was renovated to create 18,000 square-feet of studio space
for the architecture and design departments. The old auditorium was
converted to a dining hall for 300. Another 900 students can dine or
study under umbrella picnic tables scattered around the central quad.

"After we used every nook and cranny," adds Nielsen, "we turned to the
new buildings on our strategic plan that we knew we would need." All
of this growth was spawned by the increase in student enrollment --
roughly 60 percent over the last eight years. Currently the student
body is about one-third non-Hispanic white and one-third Hispanic,
with the final third composed of Asian-Americans, African-Americans
and foreign students, largely from Asia.

But as a group, it is students of Armenian heritage who account for
the most dramatic growth in recent years. Four years ago, when Ani
Okkasian entered as a freshman, "people thought I was a novelty --
'Oh, how exotic, you're from Armenia,'" laughs the energetic,
dark-haired coed who served as student body president this past
academic year. Four years later, the Armenian Student Association
has nearly 70 members and Armenian is heard around campus almost as
often as Spanish as a second language.

"You have a culture that's very family-driven," explains Okkasian,
a communications major who hopes to have a career working for human
rights or around climate change. "Like, my parents don't understand
why someone would want to move out at 18. They see it as, you stay
in the house till you're married. So Woodbury's location is a big
part of it, because most of the Armenian kids come from Burbank,
Glendale or North Hollywood."

After graduating from Glendale High, Okkasian applied to several
large state schools, including California State Long Beach with its
40,000-strong student body. "And then I came here," she says, "and
I got this instant family feel. After I visited a couple of times,
people started knowing my name."

Because Okkasian was the first in her family to attend an American
university, she admits she was a little intimidated by the whole
process. "I knew I would need help, I mean, just basic stuff -- how
to set up my schedule to graduate on time. I know if I had gone to
a bigger school, I would have had a much harder time. But when I got
here, it was amazing how much time they took to talk to me."

Roughly 70 percent of Woodbury students are, like Okkasian, the
first in their family to attend college, according to Rosen, the
academic vice president. And that, too, is purposeful, he says, part
of the University's mission. "The students we serve by and large
are low-income, overwhelmingly minority. So it's people who have
been at the margins of our society -- but who really look like the
people who will be at the center of our society in the next 50 years,
if not before."