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University of Maryland Baltimore County

Special to SunSpot

When thinking of "the college experience," one mightconjure up images of ivy-lined walls, football gamesand fraternity houses. Chances are, "chess team,""AIDS research" and "commuter" aren't the first wordsto come to mind. But University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has created its own niche,somewhere between an exclusive private college and a big party school.

It is large enough that students don't know all of the people they pass on the way to classes, but small enough that its dynamic president, Freeman Hrabowski, knows many of the students by name. Founded in 1966, UMBC is a spacious mid-sized university located in Catonsville. Thecampus is situated on 500 acres of land located less than 20 minutesfrom Baltimore and 45 minutes from Washington, D.C. Unlike Towson University or College Park, however, its location is not exactly considered a college town. This makes having an on-campus social life challenging at times.

In recent years, the UMBC administration has attempted toinject some life into the daily grind. Between construction of residence halls and activity centers, there are increased reasons to stay on campus at the end of the day.

Opened in 2001, the 148,000-square-foot "campus center" -- the Commons -- houses thebookstore, convenience store, eateries and meetingrooms for clubs and organizations. Unfortunately WMBC, the college's free-form radio run by dozens of student DJs, is not piped into the Commons.

The , opened in 1999, is a mammoth recreational facility featuring two indoor gyms, a fitness center and weight room, atrack and a natatorium (two swimming pools). Also included is a4,000-seat arena for concerts and sporting events. Alanis Morrisette, Margaret Cho and John Waters have all appeared there.

In the past, UMBC has been considered largely acommuter school. Plans for two new residence halls -- to be constructed by 2004 -- will help to change this perception by bringing the number of undergraduates living on campus to a projected 50 percent. But for now, the high percentage of commuters and their cars are creating a lack of available parking spaces. To alleviate the problem, a south campus satellite lot with 391 spaces was added in 2002.

Billed as an "Honors University in Maryland," UMBC offers an Honors College, where students can immersethemselves in a course of study. Interested studentsmust apply specifically for the Honors College andmust take one honors course per semester.

Majors at UMBC are varied and split among differentcolleges: The college of arts and sciences offers 33majors in traditional subjects. The college of engineering -- comprising three differentdepartments: Chemical and biochemical engineering,computer science and electrical engineering, andmechanical engineering -- blends customary instruction with an emphasis on information technology and research.

UMBC, which was named one of Newsweek's 12 "hottest schools" in 2003, is now considered an "independent publicresearch university," a distinction held by a mere 10percent of the more than 3,000 colleges and universities inthe country. This means research partnerships withsome prominent organizations, including NASA, National Institutes of Health(NIH) and Johns Hopkins University. Studentsresearch everything from various types of cancer toinvestigating the structure of HIV.

The research opportunities at UMBC are as varied as its students. The Bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park opened its doors in 2002 with the notion that an on-campus technology center that hosts local companies would provide students with the opportunity to gain real-world experience.

In addition to the science-based research opportunities at UMBC, The Shriver Center offers social action-based research and internship opportunities, the Imaging Research Center focuses on computer animation and visualization and the Center for Women and Information Technology strives to give women a larger role in information technology development.

UMBC also has an award-winning theater and dance department, as well as professional dance and theater companies that offer students opportunities to learn from working performers. , the professional theater company in residence at UMBC, performs each summer at in downtown Baltimore.

Doug Hamby Dance and Phoenix Dance Company are both professional dance companies in residence at the school. Doug Hamby Dance has been touted for its melding of artistry and technology, and even has a robotic member of the troupe. Built by faculty and engineering students at UMBC, Maurice Tombe is an arachnid-like robot who performs programmed choreography. His creation was partly funded by a grant to dance department chair Doug Hamby and Dr. Tony Farquhar of the engineering department, from the UMBC Designated Research Initiative Fund. He was used in dance pieces to determine his scope of movement and ability to be programmed and choreographed. Eventually, he will revert to his given name, Prototype Demining Robot 1A, to help discover new ways to deactivate landmines.

UMBC boasts strong relationships between students and faculty. Whilerequired classes are often held in vast lecturehalls, core classes regarding a chosen major tend tobe more personal. In addition to going out of their way to help studentssucceed in their programs (such as working with them to create their own disciplines), faculty members help find students jobs and internshipsin their chosen fields.

A high percentage of students go on to graduateschool, aided by the programs UMBC offers, includingthe Honors College, the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program -- created for students who want to pursue their doctorate degrees in science or engineering -- and various internships through the Shriver Center on campus.

Despite Hrabowski's zeal for academia, he alsorealizes that rigorous studying makes for stressed students,and there are plenty of opportunities to unwind at UMBC.There are many clubs and organizations to join, but if there isn't one that appeals to you, there is always an opportunity to startone. In addition, WMBC allows students to create their own radio shows, and The Retriever Weekly (the campus newspaper) and Bartleby (the campus literary magazine) provide students with the honor of seeing their names in print.

Furthermore, UMBC athletics do exist, despite theschool's lack of a football team. The Retrievers are represented in lacrosse (men's lacrosse is ranked in thetop 20 nationwide) and basketball teams, as well astennis, swimming, baseball and volleyball teams.

Perhaps the most unusual team at UMBC, however, neverbreaks a sweat in competition. The UMBC chess team isworld-renowned. It has been featured on national television, battled chess champion Gary Kasparov, and UMBC was named 2000 "Chess College of the Year" by Chess Life Magazine, all of which adds to the intellectual nature of the school. As Hrabowski says, "At UMBC, we celebrate brainpower and the life of the mind. Our campus is home to the five-time national chess champions. ... We excel in debate, quiz bowl and Model United Nations competitions. This is a place where students not only feel good about being smart, but know that it is cool to be smart."

Hrabowski is obviously passionate about UMBC andits mission, and seems confident that prospective students willwant to enroll as soon as they begin to investigatethe possibilities. "All we have to do is get themhere," he says. But what about competing with thoseother two dozen or so state schools? "High achieverstend to do their research," Hrabowski says.

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