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Cozy USF campus adds youth, brains and verve

With 400 freshmen and sophomores and almost double the number of professors, the pretty but awfully languid little campus by the water begins to be a happening place.

By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 9, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Professor Deby Cassill takes a picture of her Biology 101 class.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The roach that Brian Wood, class of 2005, ate during the previous week's lab was the topic of conversation among USF students waiting for Biology 101 to begin Wednesday afternoon.

"It was kind of like a crab cake," said Wood, his 18-year-old face crinkling into a grin. "A little bitter. I boiled it first."

By the time professor Deby Cassill bounded into Room 206 in Davis Hall, the group had moved on to the scorpion that was expected to devour a lizard in their experiment that day.

The freshman class, 200 strong, and an equally large sophomore class are making their mark on the University of South Florida here. They are the largest group of younger students to populate the St. Petersburg campus, which for years catered mostly to adults who attended part time at night.

Cassill is one of 42 new full-time faculty members added to accommodate the growth of the undergraduate program for freshmen and sophomores that has almost doubled the number of faculty on the campus, from 56 last year to 98 this year, and added a highly educated, affluent demographic group to the local population mix.

The students and their teachers are creating a new energy on the campus, especially during daytime hours. Classrooms once empty before sundown now buzz with young adults studying English, history, math, chemistry and biology, courses once offered only on the Tampa campus.

The professors, most with doctoral degrees, are "new hires," said Deborah Kurelik, coordinator of university relations for the campus. "Very few transferred from Tampa."

She said salaries range from the "high 30s to low 80s. And I don't have any statistics, but I believe most of them live in the St. Petersburg area."

Both students and teachers say they love the smallness of the campus and classes.

"I like it so much better here," said Kathleen Harmas, a sophomore who transferred to the St. Petersburg campus after taking freshman classes in Tampa. "It's smaller, cleaner. In Tampa, my smallest class was 60. Here there are 20 people in each class. There's more one on one with the professors."

Kathy Carvalho teaches a freshman chemistry class. "I know all my students' names and they know mine," she says. "I'm really impressed with the freshmen. They're motivated. And they're so young. Some of them want to know if they need passes to go to the bathroom."

Cassill has taught at Texas A&M, the University of Arizona and Florida State University. She said she turned down job offers from the University of San Diego and University of Texas at Austin to accept this post with the College of Arts and Sciences at USF.

"A big plus were all the administrators here. They are really nice people who set the tone."

Cynthia Leung, a professor in the College of Education who previously taught at North Dakota State University and the Institute of Education in Hong Kong, agreed.

"The main reason I took this job is that the people were so nice," she said. "I really like the students. They're respectful and excited about learning."

They say living in St. Petersburg was also a draw.

"I love St. Petersburg," said Cassill, 54, a widow whose son is an adult. "It has everything a single woman would want within walking distance of my apartment."

"Last December in North Dakota," said Leung, "it was subzero temperatures the whole month."

"I live in the Gulfport area," said Lisa Anne Culp, who came from Oglethorpe College in Atlanta and teaches freshman composition. "I recently took sailing lessons. This is a very nice place to live."

The campus does not have any housing, so students do not hang around once classes are over. University leaders want to add it for underclassmen, and vice president Bill Heller said ground should be broken on the first phase next year. "It will probably be a tower for 250 students. We'd like to add to that until we get to 1,000 students."

State budget cuts have slashed $20-million from the total USF budget, including about $1-million from the St. Petersburg campus. But they will not affect housing plans, he said, "because we will finance that with bonds."

Kurelik, the coordinator of university relations, said classes are expected to remain small. That is good news for professors such as Cassill, who think the small size is the best way to harness the enthusiasm of her young students.

"I have 24 students in the biology class. I've had 50 to 100 students at other schools. I can engage my students, make biology fun. There is no excuse for biology being stressful."

As students clustered around a table, the only creature in the classroom that seemed stressed was the lizard, which clung to the walls of its plastic container while being eyeballed by the scorpion. The day's lesson was on survival strategies in the animal world, which led to a lesson on Darwinism.

The scorpion was not hungry and after class, the students released the lizard.

"We'll feed it a roach next time," said Cassill. "Unless Brian eats it."

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