Saddleback president expects new Gateway Building to improve college services

Color coordinated banners, large windows in lieu of walls and positioning of staff and offices are designed to create an Apple Store vibe.

After more than five years since its concept, Saddleback College plans to launch the opening of the Gateway Building, its much-anticipated new student center, in early February, after two years of construction, according to Dr. Elliot Stern, the college president. 

“We want nothing about it to feel like a traditional student service building,” Stern said. “It’s the same services you’ve always had and hopefully just as good because the people who deliver those services care about you as a student a lot, but it’s how we deliver them that will change.”

The students look forward to the modernization that will be a better fit for this generation of students, Stern said. 

The original Student Service Center (SSC) at Saddleback was built decades ago in 1990. Most of the offices currently located in the SSC will move to the new building, except for the Health Center.

Built at the north end of the campus, the Gateway Building includes three stories, with Student Services housed on the bottom levels and classrooms on the top level. This formation was designed to offer specific services to diverse student needs. 

The first floor of Gateway, which will house the Financial Aid Office, opens up to Parking Lot 9 . The Second floor, which will house Counseling Services opens up to the quad, Stern said. He explained this is so a new student may use the metered parking in Lot 9 and enter the building at the level that focuses on those unfamiliar with the college.

“For someone like you, who’s an existing student, you probably want the counseling center. Or, you want the career center; maybe you’re planning on going out for a job. All of those things are immediately when you come in from the second floor, so easy for you to identify.”

New students will find that Gateway is easy to navigate, using different colored banners that lead to corresponding services for students, Stern said. 

The banners will run with traffic and guide students as they walk around the building. While there will not be a signage system, the banners help to eliminate the initial confusion that college students can feel on a new campus. 

On the third floor, classrooms are built with windows instead of walls, specifically intending to lessen the stereotypical fear surrounding a classroom. 

“With all the transparency of the spaces, you’ll see lots of glass, where offices that used to be walled off are now glass walls so that you can see the people inside are not scary and what’s happening, “ Stern said. “You can see that we want you to come in and we want you to feel welcome in that building.” 

One of these transparent areas is a Career/Life Development library where people can hang out or speak with visiting college representatives and employers, said Saddleback Career Guidance Specialist, Donnie Mineo.

Even the ceilings were redesigned with intention. The ceilings are exposed without drop ceilings to show every wire and cord used in the process. 

“With these open ceiling spaces throughout the building, there’s a sense of height, that a sense of openness, that I hope transmits something emotionally, that you know, ‘I am in a place where I can go higher, I am at a place, or I can agree that I can be me and I can be free,’’’ Stern said.  

The new approach to helping students assimilate into a college environment is based upon the design to make the building look like an Apple Store, including a service area that emulates the design and objective of Apple’s Genius Bar for technical support. As part of Apple’s customer service, each Apple Store provides concierge-style, face-to-face support for customers from “Geniuses” who are specially trained and certified by Apple.

“There is a ‘Genius Bar’ for students to walk up to, ask essential questions and wait in a digital queue on their phones,” Stern said.

The design will eliminate lines for extra time that college students can spend studying or with their friends on campus. The building and its offices are also equipped with sound-dampening technology for efficiency and to ensure privacy.

Marcia Milchiker, a long-time member of the South Orange County Community College Board of Trustees, supported the concept and objective of the new building.  She said many of the trustees thought a change was necessary to update the campus to fit student’s needs to welcome them as guests.

“Studies have shown that students are more likely to be retained in college and not drop out if they have some attachment to the college campus,” Milchiker said.

It’s not just the students who are excited about this new building; The Saddleback staff who work in Student Services are also enthusiastic about this change. 

Mena Zamani, an Articulation Specialist at Saddleback College, has worked in the current Student Services Center for seven years. She is looking forward to moving into the Gateway Building and believes it will be an upgrade for students and staff. 

She is excited about the new technology it will provide and a design to let in more natural light.

While many staff members are looking forward to the new student services center, some have concerns that it will not be as welcoming as it sounds. For example, some staff believe that instead of promoting openness and freedom, the use of high ceilings may have the opposite effect.

“We have [high ceilings] in the library, and people don’t feel like it’s that welcoming,” Mineo said. “It feels very industrial, and I know I’m not the only staff member that’s moving into the building that has some serious doubts.”

Saddleback College contracted the architectural firm HED Design Company for the layout and design and construction firm McCarthy Building Companies for the construction of the Gateway Building, initially dubbed the “Gateway Project,” according to the Board of Trustees meeting minutes. These are the same companies hired to manage the same tasks for both the new Math and Computer Science Building Advanced Technology and the recently opened Advanced Technology and Applied Science (ATAS) building, according to Stern. 

The Gateway Building includes classroom lecture space, learning labs, study areas, collaborative workplace spaces, a learning common, as well as student services 

“The architecture references characteristics of existing campus buildings in a contemporary solution. Glazing along the main street showcases services and activities, creating a ‘see and be seen’ atmosphere. In concert, these strategies create an environment that support student success by encouraging interaction, supporting individual and group learning and creating the foundation for a vibrant campus community,” is how the designers define the project on their website.

HED’s plans centered on environmental sustainability, using natural energy sources in the building’s design, including “energy-efficient lighting and a roof that is structured for easy installation of solar panels in the future. 

The total cost of the Gateway Building is $60 million, according to Stern, as well as Board of Trustees meeting minutes. The staff applied and were granted $25 million in state funding with local taxpayers contributing $35 million, according to the Governor’s CCC May Revision Capital Outlay Proposal.

The Gateway Project is nearly finished and has morphed from a concept to design to a brick-and-mortar facility that will provide a one-stop venue for student support in an open, user-friendly environment. The anticipated opening is February 2024.

“We want you to be involved in your own learning, right?” Stern said. “So that’s what we’ve done and we have built classrooms that support it.”

Story by JRN 2 Team 1, Molly Richmond, Group Leader; Maggie Baker, Sarah Rosenzweig, Lisseth Ramirez Augustin