New student center provides a place for Vanguard University to get together

On a recent sunny afternoon, students spilled into Vanguard University’s new student center lobby, curled up on couches on the upstairs terrace and filtered through the cafeteria, food trays in hand. One professor recently held class on the terrace. Even employees from the neighboring Costa Mesa Civic Center occasionally stop by for lunch.

For the first time, all of that can happen in one place. Until the student center opened two weeks ago, the small Christian college had no central student hub. Now there’s room for nearly everything at the indoor-outdoor space in the heart of campus: eating, studying, exercising, meeting and — perhaps most importantly — hanging out.

“We need to create a space where there’s kind of one Vanguard,” said university President Michael Beals.

Beals knows firsthand what the university was missing. As an undergraduate student, he met his sweetheart-turned-wife, Faith, in the Vanguard University cafeteria — the same one that served students until the new center opened two weeks ago.

“When I was here in the ‘70s, there really wasn’t a ton of space for hanging out,” Beals said.

Now, in addition to a new cafeteria, the 42,000-square-foot student center boasts a recreational center that doubles as an event space, a fitness center and an upstairs terrace with a view across campus. It replaces a 70-year-old building called “the Cove,” a former Santa Ana Army Air Base building that served as the student snack shop, bookstore and small gathering space.

Vanguard hopes to capture a “campus feel” with its new multipurpose center.

“To have one set building where students can come whenever and do homework or eat or play games, that’s just really cool,” said senior Jackie Gutierrez. “I see it meeting more diverse needs than it had before. That’s a huge accomplishment for Vanguard.”

University leaders were set to join local elected officials Friday evening to celebrate the center’s unveiling, as well as Vanguard’s 100-year celebration. A weekend of festivities will honor significant university alumni and others who have contributed to the school’s long history, relics of which can be found all over the new center.

Nearly every wall is embossed with the names of donors — or community members, as Beals likes to call them. The center is officially named after its biggest donors, Fred and Ruth Waugh, a couple who regularly host prayer meetings in their Corona home for students.

With its Santa Barbara Mission-style architecture, the $12.9-million center is the first in an ambitious lineup of projects included in Vanguard’s 30-year master plan, which university officials hope will expand the student body to as much as 2,700. The university currently serves about 2,200 students, including graduate and professional studies programs.

The city approved the master plan last February after a long and sometimes contentious process with campus neighbors. Some residents complained that the relocation of a maintenance and operations facility would spoil their views, reduce property values and disrupt traffic in the area.

Vanguard handily won approval for the student center in 2018 and forged ahead with design and construction, achieving its goal of finishing in time for the university’s centennial celebration.

A small school that prides itself on close professor-student mentorships and community relationships, Vanguard had few places for people to meet, Gutierrez said. Before the student center opened, she would go on “one-on-ones” at Samson’s Cafe, a small university coffee shop named after the school’s mascot, or the affectionately termed “Vanguard Starbucks” across Newport Boulevard.

Now, folks can grab coffee in the student center’s new Dr. Ben’s coffee spot and lounge in one of the three areas — living room, dining hall or work space.

“Every inch is intended for students to gather,” said Justin McIntee, vice president for university advancement.

Though Gutierrez spent her first two years on campus, she commuted from Moreno Valley for her junior and senior years. Commuters make up about one-third of the student population, Beals said.

Last semester, Gutierrez rarely stepped into the old cafeteria because she brought her own lunch every day. In the old system, students had to pay to enter the cafeteria.

That 50-year-old building will come down next, creating an open green space to connect the student center to the library, “the Pit” athletic gym and other academic buildings.

Since seeing the new student center cafeteria and hearing about better menu options, Gutierrez purchased a meal plan.

“I’m sold,” she said. “I want to be a part of this.”

The student center still accommodates commuters who want to bring their own lunch, though. A kitchenette in one corner provides refrigerators, a sink and shelves.

“You want commuters to feel like you’re part of the community,” Beals said. “We had programming — now we have space too.”