Summer conference services uphold university ideal

May 27, 2008 By Bobbi Jo Snethen

With the spring semester coming to a close, the campus prepares for a transition from predominantly undergraduate students to a highly diverse summer population. For University Housing Conference Services Program Director Sharon Seagren, June, July and August are the busiest months of the year.

The University Housing Conference Services Program is dedicated to supporting the mission of UW–Madison by providing on-campus living and dining experiences for participants of non-credit academic and recreational programs. This summer, the program will accommodate more than 18,000 guests in approximately 100 groups.

"Nine months out of the year we’re planning," says Seagren. "After January, everything starts to accelerate in the planning process until guests arrive in the summer."

The program coordinates food and shelter for adult, youth and pre-college groups among 14 halls and six dining units. In 2007, guests from 48 states and 32 countries utilized the residence halls during their summer campus experience.

"The age of our guests span from eight to more than 80 years old. Based on each group’s needs, we try to accommodate them with special dining menus and prime locations on campus," says Seagren.

Seagren and assistant directors Stephanie Miller-Lamb and Frank Hoppe are the only full-time conference service employees planning the events year round. They coordinate with UW–Madison’s Division of Information Technology, the UW Police Department and Transportation Services in order to provide a safe, convenient learning experience on campus. Seagren defines her department as a "one-stop shop for housing" and emphasizes the importance of customer service.

"For many guests, this is their first impression of UW–Madison, so we train our staff, which is primarily UW students, to focus on the details of making our guests as comfortable as possible," says Seagren. "We also continue to renovate our halls so they stay in good shape not just for the academic year, but during the summer."

"We’ve had compliments like ‘This is practically like living in a Hilton’ and that is very rewarding for us to hear."

This year, conference services will incorporate the new Ogg and Smith Hall as summer living quarters primarily for adult guests. Grandparents University is a popular outreach program co-hosted by the Wisconsin Alumni Association and UW Extension Family Living Program that brings more than 700 grandparents and grandchildren to campus.

"We made special accommodations for older guests in Smith Hall for the first time last year and our ratings went way up," says Seagren. "More than 95 percent of our adult guests said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their stay and highlighted the reasonable price, cleanliness and location."

The University Housing Conference Service program generates revenue that helps offset costs during the academic year in addition to utilizing empty buildings.

Of the 104 groups arriving this summer, 85 are annual guests. Some groups show no sign of looking elsewhere for their temporary summer stay. The Wisconsin 4-H Youth Conference has brought its participants to UW–Madison residence halls for 88 consecutive years while the Summer Music Clinics for middle school students will stay for its 79th year.

The 19 remaining programs are new to UW–Madison’s Conference Services.

WCATY, the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth, has been working with Seagren since October of 2006 in organizing its visit. WCATY brings nearly 120 gifted high school students to campus, giving them the opportunity to complete an intense advanced placement course in just three weeks. Historically, the program has offered courses at smaller campuses around the state, but felt a move to UW–Madison would greatly benefit participants.

"This way, we’ll be more closely connected to a flagship university we believe it will be more appealing to students," says WCATY summer program director Scott Lein. "We sent out a survey to students and their parents prior to moving the program to Madison and we received a lot of positive feedback."

Last year, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation‘s WiCell Research Institute and Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction created a pilot stem cell science camp for rural high school students. This July, WiCell will bring back 20 students and five teachers to Slichter Hall while learning about cutting-edge stem cell research and technology at the university.

"We want to give a big-university experience to those who rarely get the opportunity to do so," says Rupa Shevde, a WARF senior scientist. "We were very happy with our accommodations and enjoyed working with the staff in making our first year successful."

Other notable groups visiting this summer include PEOPLE, the Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Experience, which is a pipeline for students of color and low-income students to attend college. UW–Madison’s SOAR, Student Orientation, Advising and Registration, will house incoming freshmen, transfer and international students along with their parents in Elizabeth Waters Hall throughout the summer.

Seagren, a UW–Madison graduate, says she is more than happy to help fulfill the expectations of the university outside the academic year and hopes to keep guests coming back. "For me, it’s really important to keep the retention rate up," says Seagren. "I hope guests have a great experience when they visit UW–Madison because it’s a great institution."