In his years as a chef, Chris Shoul had never thought much about the feelings of a lifelong vegetarian, unable to enjoy the cheese steaks others scarfed down.
But last year, after Towson University began offering a vegan version of the sandwich made with substitute beef, the campus' top chef got a note from just such a student.
"Because of you, I got to have my first cheese steak!" the student raved to Shoul.
Such moments are the reasons why Towson and the University of Maryland, College Park rank among the most vegan-friendly campuses in the U.S. and Canada, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"They have really gone above and beyond to make sure they have these options and that students are aware of them," says Ryan Huligan, who directs PETA's campus activism arm.
The organization nominated 80 campuses this year, double last year's total, and Huligan says that demonstrates a growing recognition of college students' affinity for veganism. Vegans exclude all animal products, including dairy, from their diets.
"We've really seen a dramatic shift in the last five or 10 years," he says.
At Towson, students collected 2,500 signatures on a petition to increase the cafeteria's vegan offerings. Simultaneously, leaders of a campus vegetarian group met with Shoul to brainstorm new menu items. The chef even spent the last academic year eating only vegetarian meals on campus so he could identify with his customers.
"You know, I was really surprised that the fake chicken and fake beef were so representative of the real things in terms of texture," he says.
As a result of the collaboration, vegan students have their choice of soy-beef lasagna, soy-chicken burritos and, yes, faux cheese steaks.
At College Park, a rotation of 28 vegan menu items includes grilled soy cheese and faux tuna melts. But beyond simple menu expansion, the campus group VegTerps is working to drive McDonald's from the student union. Students say the fast-food giant buys from vendors that mistreat chickens.
The VegTerps have collected 5,000 signatures on a petition to expel McDonald's, handed out hundreds of buttons featuring crossed-out golden arches and paid students $1 each to watch video clips of animal mistreatment at factory farms.
"We don't think they're representative of the university, and we don't think students should support them," says VegTerps president Lisa Foreman, a senior from Columbia.
The quest has met resistance. "If students don't like McDonald's they should show it by simply taking their business elsewhere, not by depriving others of the freedom of choice," said the campus newspaper The Diamondback.
"McDonald's expects humane treatment of animals by our suppliers in every part of the world where we do business," says spokeswoman Danya Proud. "McDonald's requires our food suppliers to do the right thing — for animals, for humans, and for the environment."
But administrators have said a student advisory board could choose not to renew the university's contract with McDonald's if the VegTerps present a convincing case.
Regardless, Foreman says the university deserves recognition for the steps it has taken to improve service for vegans over her four years on campus.
"They're definitely doing a great job of being progressive," she says.