A trip to Rocket City

The last stop on our 2019 College Tour, which actually started in 2018.

The University of Alabama in Huntsville has been on our radar since Katy’s first trip to Space Camp in 2012 when she was 10. She’d always wanted to be an environmental engineer even though I kept telling her you don’t have to be an engineer to help the environment, and UAH is excellent for engineering and it’s the size of school and setting that Katy would like. The school has a big display in the Space Camp cafeteria and last year at Advanced Space Academy someone from the school came and talked to the trainees. So it’s been on our mind for awhile. Katy did, in that time, change her interest. In ninth grade she had a really good biology teacher (she had her again in 11th grade for AP biology) and in 10th grade she had a really bad math teacher. Between the two she decided math really isn’t her thing and that she really wants to go into biology. But we still went to check out UAH as they are good for any STEM field.

So this weekend we made our seventh round-trip to Huntsville (the other six were to drop her off and pick her up for three rounds of Space Camp).

We made it.

The school isn’t very old at all and has kind of an interesting history and it all ties into space and technology. During WWII there were three arsenals in Huntsville and after the war they were combined into the Redstone Arsenal, which is where NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is. Also at the end of the war a Nazi rocket scientist, Dr. Wehrner Von Braun, surrendered to the US and was brought to the U.S. to work for the army developing ballistic missiles. While he was supposed to be thinking of ways to destroy the planet, he really had his eye on space exploration. He was the one whose suggested Redstone be used for rocket testing. Space Camp was his idea, too, although he died before the program was implemented.  While all that space stuff was going on, in 1950 the University of Alabama decided to open a learning center in Huntsville, offering a few freshman-level classes at a local high school.  In 1961 Dr. Von Braun suggested that Huntsville really needed a research center. And that’s when things really began to change for the school. The learning center (which had its own campus by then) became a full-fledged branch of the University of Alabama. In 1968 students were awarded degrees but they were from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, although Huntsville did hold its own ceremony. The following year the school became an autonomous university, the University of Alabama in Huntsville. And the school — and city — has done nothing but grow since then. Next fall they are hoping to hit a record-high enrollment of 10,000 students.

A photo of Dr. Von Braun in  the library lobby taken in 1961. The plaque is a quote from him that day that says “It’s the university climate that brings the business … I am speaking of an investment in people … strong, capable, educated people”.

So onto the present.

Here we are. The campus looks like a business park (the admissions counselor we talked with agreed with me) and at first I wasn’t real thrilled about that but the more we walked around the more it grew on me and started to feel a little more like a school.

I think these are dorms.

The library with a weird sculpture.

We checked in at the Student Services building and got a packet with an itinerary: an informational meeting, walking tour, meeting with admissions and lunch in the cafeteria.

During the informational meeting Katy was really impressed with the film they showed as it started with video of a rocket launch followed by the moon landing. We learned a little about the history of the school and the campus. An admissions counselor talked about campus life and the school’s success in job placements. UAH has graduates with the highest income after graduation of any school in Alabama. Huntsville is tech central and students get internships followed by jobs. The nearby technology park offers 13,000 internships. The school has just under 10,000 students. She said the trick is getting in before someone from somewhere else. They have an internship fair in the gym and she said it’s worth it for freshmen to put on their business attire and start making connections even if they don’t plan on an internship that summer. Companies they work with include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Disney and Northrop-Gruman. Many graduates remain in Huntsville.

Then we divided into two groups for the tour. Our tour guide was named Cade, he is a rising sophomore who accidentally said he was a freshman, and is an aeronautical engineering major who would like to go to Mars. If everyone goes to Mars who wants to it might get crowded.

And we were off on the tour in the Alabama heat and humidity.

This is the School of Nursing and I was surprised to find that nursing is their biggest school. I don’t think anyone in our group was interested in nursing but Cade was very enthusiastic about the program. He talked about the mannequins to simulate child birth that they call “Little Birtha” and “Big Birtha”. They also have a neat-sounding program called No-Fear Hospital. They have a mock hospital and in the spring first graders from the local schools can come and practice being a patient so if they ever do have to go the hospital they won’t be afraid.

This is the science building. The pointy thing on the left is a greenhouse for biology students. Cade said they have other classes in that building, too, and if you get through four years without having a class there you should get some kind of certificate.

Heath checking out the historic display in the library.

We went into the library and one of the parents asked if there were any books. Every college library we’ve been to the first-third floors (depending on the school) have been dedicated to computer labs, group learning areas and usually a coffee shop. We didn’t get past the lobby area. Cade talked about the tutoring services offered. They have walk-in sessions, which is very convenient. Sometimes you just need a little help now and then.

We walked past lots of academic buildings but we didn’t go in any or look in any classrooms, but they’re probably about the same as anywhere. Classes are pretty small, about 30 students, but introductory classes can be bigger. Students have to take a core curriculum.

We did visit a dorm. There are five dorms on campus and most are the suite style with private rooms and then a shared kitchen and living room. The school also contracts with some off-campus apartment complexes for upperclassmen.

The hall we visited was the honors community so we had a chance to talk about that as well. Cade asked if anyone was interested in the honors program and everyone was. He said it’s been awhile since he had a tour where anyone was.

The residents have decorated the ceiling tiles.

They had a model suite set up. Of all the dorms we have looked at this one has had the smallest rooms by far.

With the bed close to the ground it felt pretty claustrophobic, the picture looks bigger than it felt.

The lofted bed makes a big difference. I did notice that with the bed at that height you could use the top of the dresser hutch for a night stand. I’m noticing some schools have rails and some don’t on the lofted beds. A couple of years ago a student at Georgia Tech rolled off his lofted bed and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Anyone notice anything a little out-of-place about this photo? There’s a corded landline telephone on the dresser. One of the girls saw it and asked “how do you dial it?”. We told her it was a push-button phone and she picked it up like it was a museum artifact.

Some of our group lounging in the little living room. I told them I was taking their picture.

And Cade in the little kitchenette.

This dorm suite was brought to you by Bed, Bath and Beyond. At Georgia College the room was brought to you by Ikea.

Not a very impressive picture, this is Charger Hall, the student union. The school mascot is a horse named Charger Blue and the school nickname is Chargers.

This would be Charger Blue, coming through the wall.

The student union was really nice. We walked through as we were leaving campus and there were several students studying and few playing pool and ping pong in the game room. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts, which is very popular with the students, and some other fast-food outlets. I asked Cade where the main dining room was and he said “Oh, I forgot”. We walked past the building but he forgot to go in. He seemed pretty embarrassed.

That was pretty much the end of the tour, we walked back to where we started.

This photo is inside the Student Services Building. Unusual for the south, they don’t have football but they do have ice hockey. Right now they play at the Von Braun Center in downtown Huntsville but the school has recently bought some more land that will have an ice arena, some more dorms and some other buildings but that’s a good 20 years down the line.

After the tour the next thing on the agenda was an admissions meeting. I thought it was everyone back in the auditorium where we started but there was a room number. Each prospective student had an individual itinerary and we had an appointment with the admissions counselor. The counselor for Atlanta wasn’t in so we met with another one. Her name was Katie, she had orange hair, a nose ring and was the sweetest thing just full of information and enthusiasm for the school. Our Katy’s only question was about the social studies requirement. They require four years for admission but Georgia only requires three for graduation and squeezing in another year would be tricky. Katie said as long as she meets her high school graduation requirements, it’s fine. I checked the graduation requirements for the State of Alabama and the only reason they have four years is because they stretch U.S. History over two years so Katy isn’t missing a class.

We talked about the biology department and learned that biology is the largest science major. Undergraduates can do research and there are bio-tech firms in the area that offer internships.

I asked if they waived the application fee if you did a campus tour and she said no but if Katy just emails her regular admission counselor (Alicia, we got her card) after applications open and ask for a code she’ll probably get one. Never hurts to ask.

We learned a little more about internships. She said the companies “pay more than I make here”, $20-$30 an hour so you can cover summer living expenses. Heath was curious about the growth of the school and noted that Huntsville itself has grown noticeably in the nine years since we’ve been going there. She said the school is trying to keep up with the demands of the growing tech sector in the city.

After that meeting we had tickets for lunch in the cafeteria. They were having a new student orientation day so the campus was busy and the cafeteria was full of families. It was crowded when we got there but by the time we got our food and sat down the orientation people were leaving so we ended up with the place pretty much to ourselves. I wouldn’t pick UAH based on the food but it was pretty typical cafeteria food. This is the south so they had fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread in the main line.

They also have a line called Simple Servings, which is free of allergens (milk, nuts, shellfish, etc). I had to laugh. They were serving baked chicken and when I was in college I was allergic to chicken.

The didn’t have any trays, which I thought was unusual for a cafeteria of any kind.

I got photos after the crowds cleared out.

Lots of seating options, not just the institutional long tables and plastic chairs.

I thought this was a rather pathetic selection of cereal — five dispensers. We had about 20 in my college cafeteria. Didn’t matter, all we ate was Lucky Charms, anyway.

The cafeteria at every school we have visited has been all-you-can-eat and that’s how it was when I was in school. Heath went to a big state school where the cafeteria was al-a-carte. He looked around and said “no wonder meal plans are $1,600 a semester”. It really works out better. I remember having a dorm meeting (we had them at the beginning of each year) and the cafeteria manager was there to get our input. Someone asked him about a-la-carte as she had visited a friend at a very large school and that was how it worked. He said the cafeteria would have to charge $5 for a bowl of peas for it to work out financially for them. We got all-you-can-eat but we always paid the same price if all we had was a bowl of cereal and the cafeteria got money for the meals we didn’t eat. They probably lost money on some football players but overall it works out.

After lunch we walked back across campus to the car. Heath pointed out we could have driven over. I said I thought about that but we decided we needed the exercise and it was nice walking across campus. We stopped in the student union again and looked in the bookstore. The campus is walkable but at 505 acres it’s a pretty good walk. I saw bicycles in every bike rack.

It was a really good visit.

I got this photo on the way out, You have to enlarge it to really see but the Saturn V from the rocket center is visible from campus. Cade said he lived on the seventh (top) floor of his dorm last year and could see it from his window.

Academically I think this is the best school we’ve looked at. So Katy has shifted some of her picks:

First pick: Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville (unchanged)
Second: UAH
Third: Berry College/Georgia Southern in Statesboro (both down from a tie for second)

For me I like Berry the best. I think Katy would love the peaceful environment and really benefit from it. Then probably UAH second and GCSU third. I don’t not like Georgia Southern but it’s not a favorite, either.

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