By Luciana Chavez Special to Merced College

The two-story structure known as the Downey Learning Resource Center has been a student hub and the jewel of the Merced College campus since it was built in 2007.

But after undergoing a $1.4-million renovation and moving tutoring operations into the building this summer, the LRC can now fully live up to the promise of its name.

“The pandemic shone a light on how we do education,” Assistant Superintendent/Vice President of Instruction Karissa Morehouse said. “The new spaces, at the LRC and elsewhere on campus, are semi-symbolic of how we’ve evolved. … We want to make sure that what we’re doing on campus feeds student success.”

A $1 million gift from alumna Susie Downey in 2020 made the remodel possible. The Downey Learning Resource Center was recently renamed to honor Susie and her late husband, Col. Russell Downey, a former commander at Castle Air Force Base.

While most campus citizens would have agreed the LRC needed an upgrade before the pandemic, the global public health crisis made the need more urgent. It accelerated the push to get it done.

“Over the last 18 months, we all beefed up our use of technology in learning,” said Marie Bruley, dean of the LRC, Distance Learning and Inmate Education. “We are never going to regress back to where things were. There was this sense that this space would lend itself to both traditional study [with books] and other modes using technology.”

The biggest change for the LRC is a key change in geography. The Student Success & Tutorial Center used to be located near the front of campus, a good distance from the Library building where the LRC is housed. Now the SSTC is located inside the LRC on the northern edge of campus.

“I always thought it didn’t quite make sense to have students doing research in the library, then have to cross campus to go to a tutoring session, then hike back to the LRC to study,” Merced College Vice President for Student Services Michael McCandless said. “We can better accommodate students by putting them all in one place.”

Merced College President Chris Vitelli and other administrators had a vision that students would be able to more efficiently engage in online education. Priorities for the remodel were strengthening campus wi-fi, more e-resources in the LRC, extra loaner laptops, more tabletop computers, click-and-share screens in study and work rooms, and more places to recharge devices.

They made important cosmetic changes, too. They repainted the building, replaced flooring and updated the signage. Old, hard wooden furniture were replaced with comfortable chairs, couches and tables that can be moved and configured to fit students’ needs. Areas were retrofitted with confined study nooks, for privacy and social distancing.

Even while the campus shifted to remote learning in Spring 2020, and the remodel was happening, LRC staff worked hard to make other logistical improvements that will also help students do work and work with technology more effectively. They redesigned the library website to be more user-focused, and they began offering curbside pickup for books and other materials.

The first floor at the Downey Learning Resource Center is not your traditional library space — it is a busier, louder area where students and staff are encouraged to interact and collaborate.

It starts in the SSTC space, where tutors work with students on reading, writing, critical thinking and specific class work, and where LRC staff hold workshops. There are enclosed study rooms for whomever needs them.

The research support desk is on one side and the SSTC on the other, with the technology help desk (Educational Technology & Training Center) in between the two. Before the SSTC and ETTC moved into the LRC, a student might ask a question at the SSTC that was really a tech question and have to schlep over to the ETTC for a fix. Or ask an SSTC question of an ETTC expert and have to schlep back.

“It’s helped all of us being neighbors on the same floor in the same building,” Bruley said.

On the second floor, you’ll find the quiet zone — lots of books and study spaces, and there’s an instruction room where staff can work with students on skills professors want them to learn (e.g., researching, citation, sourcing, etc.). All of the study and instruction rooms have high-tech screens that allow professors to share with students and students to share back with professors in real time.

All told, the student academic hub on the Merced College campus now feels more inviting and functional — so much so that Bruley said a colleague on campus, who taught at UC Merced and knows what a research university library should look like, said the LRC looks exactly like a great library at a great university.

Merced College students should feel properly cared for. The Downey Learning Resource Center is open for business.