CU Boulder student clubs lose on-campus working space due to burgeoning enrollment

Editor’s note: The story below has been updated to correct Elizabeth Skewes’ title to associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information and former chair of the campus’ journalism department. The story has also been updated to correct the spelling of former CU Independent editor Zoe Schacht’s surname.

Inside a narrow, single-car garage, Mia Abouhamad and Jarrett Bartson sat close together as they designed an aircraft.

Although their space was small and was illuminated by a single fluorescent light and a strand of Christmas lights that twinkled from the ceiling, they made it work as they calculated the size of the wingspan they wanted for the aircraft before they let the computer take over and tell a 3D printer-like machine what to do.

The small detached garage in Abouhamad’s apartment complex has served as the lab for University of Colorado Boulder student club Design Build Fly since last year. Before that, they had nothing after they moved out of their space on campus at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although classes have since returned to normal, the club has continued to operate in the garage because they have been unable to locate a space at the new aerospace building that is large enough for them and other aerospace clubs to use on a regular basis and store equipment in due to the campus’ No. 1 priority – classroom space – which is heavily needed as enrollment continues to grow.

From 2010 to 2020, campus enrollment has increased by 16%, but leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, enrollment remained relatively the same. In 2018, 34,510 students were enrolled at CU Boulder. Enrollment increased to 35,528 the following year, and dropped slightly in 2020 to 34,975 as the COVID-19 virus spread across the world. Last year, enrollment surpassed pre-pandemic numbers at 35,897 — the highest number recorded, according to the campus’ enrollment tracker that dates to 1991.

Even though the garage is a tight squeeze for the club, Abouhamad said she’s happy that DBF has been able to make it work. Unfortunately the club has to be out of the space by Sept. 5. After that, DBF hopes to spread out materials and machines among teammates and hopefully store equipment at the aerospace building, Abouhamad said. She isn’t sure what the team, which has about 30 to 40 members, will do from there.

“We are devastated to be losing the garage, however I know we can get through this,” Abouhamad said. “We’ll need a dedicated place to work soon, but hopefully the facilities the department has will be enough while we look for another place.”

A price to pay

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the number of student clubs at CU Boulder fluctuated year-to-year.

During the 2017-2018 academic school year, there were 513 recognized student or social Greek organizations on campus. The total increased by 22 the following year but then dipped to 508 clubs during the 2019-2020 school year. The clubs shrank again the following year to 421 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last school year, the number of student clubs began to rebound with a total of 446 on campus as students returned to in-person learning.

Funding allocated to student clubs also teetered during the same time frame due to the pandemic.

At CU Boulder, CU Student Government helps support student organizations by setting the amount of student fees that are tacked onto students’ tuition bills. The amount is also approved by the University of Colorado Board of Regents, according to an official with CUSG. Student fees also go toward covering operating expenses at the campus’ recreation center, the University Memorial Center and other campus facilities.

Funding allocations for CU Boulder student organizations decreased by 12% from $868,449.53 during the 2018-19 school year to $765,214.16 during the 2019-20 school year because less overall funding was requested by student clubs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allocations dropped again the following year to $225,150.18 or by 71% during 2020-2021. But as students returned to campus this past school year, funding allocations grew by 98% to $446,320.55. Even with the hefty increase after clubs began requesting funds again, money allocated during the 2021-2022 school year is still 48% less than the amount allocated to clubs during the 2018-2019 school year.

Andrew Sorensen, spokesperson for CU Boulder, said during the 2018-2019 school year, more than $1.3 million in funding was available to students and during the most recent 2021-2022 academic year, $1.2 million was available to student organizations for operations and events.

He added that unused funds went into a reserve and are available to be distributed now and in the future to CU Boulder student organizations.

Although CU Boulder student club Sounding Rocket Lab receives funding from the campus, it has still struggled to cover one of its largest, ongoing expenses: rent.

Like DBF, students in Sounding Rocket Lab moved out of their working space in the engineering building on campus in March 2020 when campus shuttered.

After the team vacated the lab space, they filled one of their parent’s basements with their equipment until they were able to secure space located by CU Boulder alumnus Rex Laceby, who is the chief of staff of aerospace company Advanced Space.

Laceby, SRL’s mentor, said he first met with the team when they were still working on campus in the hopes that they would be interested in learning about national security work as a future career path.

“They invited me to come over to their space, and they were amazing,” he said. “They weren’t research students, they weren’t doing it for some class, they were just motivated about building their own rockets.”

Laceby covers half the cost of the total rent, which is $12,000 a year for the space he found in Broomfield.

In addition to the funding SRL gets from CU Boulder Student Government, it also applies for funding from CU Boulder’s Engineering Excellence Fund. This year, the team received about  $25,000 from the fund, but last year it did not receive any support, so about 30% to 50% of its budget went to paying for its space, said SRL former team captain Graham Kersey.

“The landlords are nearly doubling the rent, so we’ve got to find a new space before our lease is up in November since we don’t want to be spending the majority of our free spending money (which comes from crowdfunding) on rent alone,” Kersey said. “We have more money this year for projects, but since we’re likely looking at rent hikes, whether we find a new space or stay in the old one, we’re not in any better of a situation.”

To help pay for costs and equipment needed to build rockets, the team also held a crowdfunding campaign in 2020 and raised about $21,000. The group recently closed its second campaign and raised about $14,000 to help it cover the cost of rent.

Sorensen said SRL is “one of the most-supported student-run organizations at CU Boulder through campus funding, crowdfunding services and faculty support.”

Sorensen said in the past three academic school years, CU Boulder has helped SRL procure about $30,000 in funding. The funding includes $1,996.38 for operational expenses, more than $6,000 in University of Colorado Engineering Council grants and more than $20,000 in crowdfunding, which includes paying for services such as counseling and assistance to set up a campaign, host a web page, host accounts and market a campaign. SRL’s former co-captain, Zach Lesan, acknowledged the support the team receives from CU Boulder but said it’s hard to continue paying for the costly materials the team needs to buy to build rockets when it now has to pay for rent.

“We love what we are able to do here, but it’s hard when we see these other student groups at other universities getting a ton of support and being able to do a ton of really cool things and focus on engineering when we have to spend so much time on just keeping ourselves alive,” said Lesan, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in May.

Brian Argrow, the CU Boulder former aerospace department chair, shared a similar perspective in a space allocation request form he submitted for student clubs SRL, DBF, Colorado RoboSub, the RoboBoat Team and the Robotic Mining Team, according to email records from May 2021 obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act.

In the space allocation request, he stated that the teams needed 10 feet by 4 feet tables and each team needed large equipment storage cabinets.

“These are all clubs engaged in annual international competitions,” Argrow wrote in the space request. “Not only do our students demand the opportunity to participate in extramural activities, their participation brings attention and public awareness to our programs.”

“AES (Aerospace Engineering Sciences) and the College of Engineering and Applied Science have been attempting to accommodate these student clubs for several years now,” Argrow’s request said. “Some of our alumni are graduating somewhat disgruntled with their experience (or lack of experience) to participate in these clubs, particularly when they see our peers (e.g University of Austin, Purdue University, Virginia Tech) with teams that are well-supported by their universities. Although we are ranked among these peers, we provide nothing close to the experience provided by our peers.”

Argrow did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Growing pains

Aerospace engineering-related student clubs are not the only groups that have faced hurdles due to a lack of on-campus space as the college’s enrollment continues to increase.

CU Boulder alumnus Robert Tann was serving as the editor of the campus’ student-run news outlet, the CU Independent, in 2019, when all funding was cut from the organization to start a new, faculty-guided student multimedia enterprise.

With the loss of funding also came the loss of its longtime newsroom at the Armory building on campus.

“We didn’t know exactly how to react,” Tann said. “It was gut punching.”

Tann said he and other CU Independent editors learned they would be losing funding during a meeting with Elizabeth Skewes, associate professor of journalism at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information and former chair of the campus’ journalism department.

“They told us they needed that (newsroom) space for classes (and) that they literally don’t have space on campus,” Tann said.

Skewes said it’s not just the CMCI that is feeling the crunch from space issues, it’s the entire campus.

“I think it came to a head as people started coming back to campus after COVID,” she said. “We have to be more creative on how we think about space. At this point, we can’t make a long-term commitment to student groups. Certainly not at the college level to say ‘Yeah we can guarantee that you will have physical space that is dedicated to you.’”

The loss of the CU Independent’s space happened right before classes moved to an all-remote platform to quell the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Even without the space, the team made it work, said Zoe Schacht, the CU Independent’s former editor.

Schacht said the team met remotely for a while, then worked with the campus’ radio station, Radio 1190, and borrowed its space for occasional meetings or to edit stories. This past fall the CU Independent secured a space in the Center for Academic Success and Engagement building. It shares the room with The Bold, the campus’ newest media outlet.

Sunday is the dedicated time the CU Independent has to use the space, but Schacht said she believes students can ask for more time if needed.

Schacht said that since losing its space in the Armory, she didn’t notice a difference in productivity or the quality of work the CU Independent did. What she did notice was a loss of community.

“So many people there are part of the LGBTQ community, and it’s a way to be around other people in that community,” she said. “I think a lot of that drive was lost when we lost our physical space. Meeting over Zoom is not the same. There are no pizza parties or jokes. I think it has taken away the social side of the CUI, and that was always one of my favorite parts.”

Finding a work around

Over the years, Donna Gerren has helped DBF navigate the growing engineering department by assisting it with finding temporary spaces as available classroom or lab space become more and more rare.

“Our department grows every year,” said Gerren, an aerospace engineering professor at CU Boulder. “Being a public university, we can’t put a cap on enrollment. When I first started, there were eight senior project groups. Next year, we will have 24. You are tripling the amount of space (needed for projects). There is no room for clubs. Clubs are the first to go.”

From 2010 to 2020, the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s enrollment increased by 66%, or from 4,577 in 2010 to 7,616 in 2020. Enrollment increased to 8,115 in 2021 or by 6.5% from 2020 to 2021.

Although Gerren said the new 180,000 square-foot building is already “strapped for space,” Sorensen said the building “has adequate space for all classes, events and approved student activities.”

Before the new aerospace building opened in 2019, DBF shared a space in a composite lab on main campus with SRL and other student clubs. The teams had big tables to use for building rockets or airplanes, tubs to store equipment and space to leave their supplies overnight, Gerren said.

Sorensen said DBF and SRL never had permanent or exclusive club space in an academic building on campus. But Gerren added that the clubs still had space on a year-to-year or semester-to-semester basis where they could lock up their equipment and meet after class to work.

“They usually shared spaces,” she said. “They were usually put in a room that the department didn’t need. When they needed it, and decided they didn’t want the (student clubs) in there, the students had to find a new place.”

When it came time to move to the new aerospace building, Gerren remembers meeting with officials in charge of planning the new aerospace building and asking them to include space for student clubs to work and store equipment, but that request never came to fruition, she said.

Argrow mentioned the space issue at the new building in an email to CU Boulder aerospace engineering students in April, according to email records. The purpose of his email was to address students about an incident where a student club used epoxy, which is not allowed in certain rooms at the new building because “project rooms are not designed with ventilation to handle emission from epoxies and resins,” he wrote in the email. “Composites layups in this building must be done in the dedicated composites shop.”

At the end of his email, Argrow said he wished there was more project space available, particularly to support extracurricular clubs.

“The reality is that the demand far exceeds the room/space capacity, so we must enforce policies that organize access as equitably as possible and that ensures safe access for all,” he wrote in the email.

Throughout the years, Argrow has remained involved with helping search for on or off-campus space for student clubs. In 2021, he inquired about renting space for students at the Boulder Municipal Airport, but the person who promised the hangar no longer works at the airport and no hangars were available at the time, said Julie Causa, spokesperson for Boulder Communication and Engagement.

In September 2021, Argrow told Steven Stasica, CU Boulder’s assistant director of finance and operations, that the department still wanted to seek off-campus space for clubs even though the airport was no longer an option, according to email records obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act.

Cherie Summers, assistant dean for administration for the College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU Boulder, followed up on the email and asked if the college could leave a section on an off-campus space request blank because she was unsure who would fund the off-campus space.

“The type of space you find will dictate who funds this (i.e. if it only houses aerospace engineering sciences student groups, then funding may come from AES, but if it will house all CEAS student groups, then funding may come from the college),” she wrote in an email addressing Sandra Grover, real estate manager with CU Boulder’s Real Estate Services Department.

According to records obtained, the email thread ended after Stasica responded to Summers and said the request would not be approved unless a funding source was identified.

Although moving aerospace clubs off campus seems like a likely solution to finding enough space, it also scares Gerren. Without a controlled lab where students must prove they know how to safely work tools like a soldering machine or a band saw before they can use them, they are left to their own devices, Gerren said.

“It’s an uncontrolled environment,” she said. “We are putting our trust in the students. It’s so important to have these clubs.”

Gerren said she sees all of the work – and the long hours – the students dedicate to clubs like DBF. Now, instead of spending time working on projects that can win their team an award or even boost their resumes, they are looking for space just to continue existing, she said.

“It’s been such a pleasure working with these students,” Gerren said. “It’s all done on their own time and sometimes their own dime. The only thing in it for them is the experience.”

For Abouhamad, that’s what it’s all about — the experience —  regardless of the hurdles she and the team have faced in recent years, she said.

“Some of the stuff I learned in DBF definitely did carry over (to my career) I would say,” Abouhamad said. “Doing computer simulations is huge in aerospace, especially since you don’t want to spend all of that money on actually building something that’s not going to work. A lot of the things we do in DBF you don’t get in the classroom.”

How to help

Both Sounding Rocket Lab and Design Build Fly are seeking lab space near CU Boulder’s campus and are asking anyone who has space they would be willing to donate or rent to the teams contact them at [email protected] and [email protected].

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