Seeing it Through: A Vision for Student-Centered Campus Spaces

By Jody Ulate

Cathy Busalacchi, ’76 Recreation. Photo by David Schmitz

“I’ve always looked at campus as a small town. Now we’ve made that town like a square, where people can come and engage.”
—Cathy Busalacchi

There is a quiet space on the top floor of San Jose State’s new Spartan Recreation and Aquatic Center. In an area alongside a row of exercise studios, above the reflective water of the recreational pool, Cathy Busalacchi drinks her morning coffee and admires a view that has been decades in the making.

Busalacchi, ’76 Recreation, has been looking out for San Jose State students for 30 years. She joined the university as Sport Club manager in 1989 and then served as associate director of the Event Center at SJSU. When she became executive director of Student Union, Inc. in 1994, she had a vision to create the “heart and soul” of campus. Her vision led to what is now the Diaz Compean Student Union and the Spartan Recreation and Aquatic Center (SRAC). Following this spring’s opening of the LEED Gold certified 128,000-square-foot SRAC, Busalacchi will retire—leaving quite a legacy.

“Seeing students engaging in and enjoying these new spaces, whether they’re studying, socializing, recreating or gaming, puts a smile on my face,” she says. “That’s what my job has been about: How do you create happiness?”

An Inspiring Plan

To “create happiness,” Busalacchi has kept herself steeped in campus life. Student Union, Inc. employs more than 400 students in the Diaz Compean Student Union, Event Center and SRAC. Busalacchi also oversees all intramural and club sports on campus. And her favorite places on campus always have a view of students so she can listen to them and learn about their interests and needs. She often walks from east to west on the main floor of the Diaz Compean Student Union because it gives her a sense of the students’ energy.

“I wanted all of our facilities to be full of light, open and visible. I want students to be able to see what’s happening in all of our facilities, so it will draw them in,” says Busalacchi. “Prior to its renovation, the Diaz Compean Student Union was old, gray and dark with its dark wood paneling and dark carpet. It was depressing.”

“The opportunity to contribute to the student journey is one of the best ways to commit to your vocation. It’s very much about watching the movement—growth, development and, oftentimes, transformation—in the life of a student.”
—Patrick Day

In those first years at Student Union, Inc., Busalacchi took note of more than the architecture. The university’s student services were spread out all over campus, and student groups and club sports lacked adequate meeting and practice spaces. Providing centralized locations for student groups and increasing meeting spaces for students became top priorities. When she pursued a master’s degree in organizational management, she focused her research on best practices and examples of student unions around the country.

“What we ended up doing was bringing all of the campus life activities into the Student Union,” says Busalacchi. “It really causes all of these groups to interact and develop creative partnerships, whether that’s Student Involvement, our LGBTQ community, our African-American community, or the Mosaic Cross Cultural Center.”

Busalacchi’s research and planning extended beyond the student union to include a renovation of the Sport Club. While her initial proposal was refined over time, it led to decades of collaboration across campus and major construction projects that now house the core of campus life. This kind of transformation required buy-in at all levels of the SJSU community. Busalacchi gave nearly 50 presentations to students and other groups, gaining the support of then-President Don Kassing and, ultimately, inspiring SJSU students to agree to raise their fees to pay for new and renovated facilities. “For a latte a day,” she would tell everyone, you can leave a legacy for the next students to come.

“My staff will tell you that I’m tough on them when it comes to budget because I think we have to be fiscally responsible to our students,” says Busalacchi. “We need to make sure students are getting the most for what they’re paying for—and that we’re giving our students what they need.”

Campus Life’s Good

Vice President for Student Affairs Patrick Day says we at SJSU need to talk about wellness out loud. Photo by David Schmitz

Taking care of students’ needs, health and well-being is critical for academic success. Nationally, seven out of 10 student academic disruptions are due to health or mental health, according to the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey, which SJSU administers about every two years to get a snapshot of how students are doing.

“Wellness is an intractable issue that’s affecting every college campus in America,” says Patrick Day, vice president for student affairs, who joined SJSU in summer 2018. “We need to talk about wellness out loud. And we need to talk to students about how to engage in healthy behaviors and give them real skill sets in which to do that.”

In addition to having “new, high-quality facilities that demonstrate that San Jose State is serious about having a well community,” Day is also undertaking an assessment of SJSU Student Affairs’ health and wellness programming. Going forward, he says, SJSU must take a broad environmental approach to wellness. Christine Wong Mineta agrees.

Christine Wong Mineta co-leads SJSU’s Healthy Campus initiative, part of a national effort whose goal is to promote student wellness. Photo by David Schmitz

“The definition of health is much more than adopting any one healthy behavior,” says Wong Mineta, assistant director of wellness and health promotion and co-chair of SJSU’s Healthy Campus initiative. “It’s important to take care of all of the dimensions of health and well-being: physical, social, emotional, occupational, multicultural, environmental, spiritual and intellectual.”

Of course, we want to change individual behavior, Wong Mineta explains, but we also want to create all of the systems and environments that help individuals be successful in making that change. It’s really trying to look at the broad picture. “Just like the SRAC, the Wellness Center has clear windows and offers transparency. It doesn’t create a barrier between health and the built environment,” says Wong Mineta. “These facilities are opportunities for different departments to collaborate, to share resources and to promote taking care of the whole self in a variety of ways. That, to me, is really powerful.”

Interim Chair of Kinesiology Tamar Semerjian says that her department is committed to giving students a breadth of opportunities through the general education-required activity courses. “If we can help students engage, whether that’s in one of kinesiology’s more than 50 activity classes, the SRAC, or the intramurals program, if that helps them feel healthy, that’s a great outcome, especially if they carry that throughout their lifespan.”

Her work with the Silicon Valley Healthy Aging Partnership has targeted health promotion and access to wellness activities for older adults. With the new facilities, along with the collaborative efforts to improve wellness programming across campus, Semerjian says “the hope is that students learn how to be healthy while they’re at SJSU and then become healthy alumni.”

Thriving Community

Kinesiology Chair Tamar Semerjian and Men’s Water Polo Head Coach Bruce Watson’76 BS, ’78 MA, Kinesiology, on the deck of the new 50-meter competitive lap pool. Photo by David Schmitz

SJSU Men’s Water Polo Head Coach Bruce Watson, ’76 BS, ’78 MA, Kinesiology, is a clear example of lifelong wellness. He began surfing and playing water polo as a youth. He played water polo at San Jose State, competed on the U.S. men’s national water polo team from 1976 to 1978, and won over-50 and over-55 masters championships. A two-time SJSU Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Watson still surfs as often as possible.

He is thrilled the SRAC also includes space for SJSU’s NCAA aquatic teams, men’s water polo, women’s water polo, and women’s swimming and diving, and opportunities for student-athletes to be more connected to the broader community. Much like Watson’s SJSU teammates in the 1970s packed into personal cars and Volkswagen buses to train at De Anza College, SJSU men’s and women’s water polo teams have spent three seasons training at West Valley College in Saratoga.

“We loved it there, but it’s super exciting to be able to have our own pool and our home games with students and alumni around,” says Watson. “The campus has really evolved. With new facilities all around, it’s changed dramatically for the better and is serving students well.”

Busalacchi expects 6,000 to 7,000 Spartans—including students, faculty and staff members, alumni and other community members—to enjoy the SRAC each day. The opening of the SRAC connects students, student-athletes, faculty and staff members and alumni, offering an opportunity for the entire community to embrace health and wellness, and to engage outside the classroom.

“Co-curricular learning will be a foundation of the educational experience at San Jose State, whether that learning is about wellness, career development, leadership or social entrepreneurship,” says Day. “The opportunity to contribute to the student journey is one of the best ways to commit to your vocation. It’s very much about watching that movement—growth, development and, oftentimes, transformation—in the life of a student.”

Busalacchi reflects on the transformation she has seen in her 30 years on campus: “I’ve always looked at campus as a small town. Now we’ve made that town like a square, where people can come and engage. Campus now feels like a true community.


Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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