Officials at the University of Minnesota-Rochester use words like "trailblazer" and "pragmatic" to describe 50 freshmen who are wrapping up the inaugural year as the school's first undergraduate class.
Students and faculty at the new campus have spent this year deciding what works, what doesn't, and what legacy they want to leave as the school's first class.
They've tapped into the Rochester community and partnered with the Mayo Clinic. Their presence has added new life to downtown Rochester.
Classrooms are on the top two floors of a downtown shopping center, a couple blocks from the Mayo Clinic. That's one of the reasons most of these students chose this untraditional college setting to start their undergraduate life, said Evan Doyle, a 19-year-old from Canton, S.D.
"Even though I'm from a tiny town, they kind of talked me into going back to a small setting," said Doyle, who students recently elected to fill UMR's Student Senate seat for the fall semester. "I want to go into medical school and I want to take advantage of every possibility to get into it."
Students like Doyle are focused on becoming the next generation of health care professionals. Most of them are in the pre-med program and already talk about graduate degrees and medical school.
The exposure to the clinic has already paid off. Earlier this year, all 50 freshmen attended a cadaver lab at Mayo, where they were able to explore internal organs.
Doyle said having that kind of exposure while being the first undergraduate class has motivated him to do well. Pre-med students usually don't do cadaver labs until their junior or senior year.
"If we fail, that's kind of like their reputation is failing," Doyle said. "So there's a lot of motivation and they're kind of kicking us in the butt to make sure we get our stuff done and do well."
That eagerness is a sign that the untraditional setting works for students, Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle said.
"I think what I'm most proud of is our students who really had to be trailblazers to come to an institution in its first year," Lehmkuhle said. "They've done phenomenally well on a very rigorous curriculum. And they're going to be finishing their second organic chemistry course as freshmen. I find that amazing."
The rigorous curriculum includes statistics, calculus, ethics courses and sociology.
Since the 50 freshmen arrived in the fall, Lehmkuhle has searched the city for facilities they could use. The YMCA serves as a recreational center and offers a work-study program for students. A nearby apartment building offers two floors for student housing. Downtown ramps serve as parking lots.
That's just the beginning. By fall, the school will double its faculty to 24.
UMR also is working with the city and a private developer to build a 25,000-square-foot space for additional classrooms, Lehmkuhle said. Construction on the building began this week and is scheduled to be complete by fall 2011. The building will also include dorms for about 200 students.
University officials plan to buy several parcels of land near downtown to set aside for a 10-acre campus. It could be built sometime in the next decade.
"Over the next decade, we'll have 1,500 students running around, and clearly that's going to change the ambiance of downtown Rochester," Lehmkuhle said. That's what fun about building a university here. It has the feel of a college town, but the individuals you're bumping into are not people all your own age. They're the professionals that these students aspire to be."
Students in the inaugural freshman class say they're doing what they can to create some aspects of a more traditional college campus. Some are starting a student government association. Others have formed campus groups, including tango and golf clubs.
In many ways, being part of the first freshman class has allowed students to decide for themselves what they want for their campus, 19-year-old Irene Simon said.
"Down the road we can say, 'Hey, we chose that' and 'We were the first class,'" said Simon, of Rochester. "I think that's really neat."
For now, Simon and the other students are looking forward to August. That's when 125 more aspiring health care professionals will arrive in Rochester as the school's second freshman class.