San Juan College to usher in new era with groundbreaking for student housing housing project

Center will house 150 students and be built by spring 2022

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
An architectural rendering of the planned on-campus student housing facility at San Juan College is featured. A viretual groundbreaking ceremony for the facility takes place at 2 p.m. Feb. 19.
  • The 37,552-square-foot, three-story facility will be built at the corner of Sunrise Parkway and Education Drive.
  • It will feature one-, two- and four-bed units.
  • It is being built at a cost of more than $10.5 million.

FARMINGTON — There are many ways the creation of on-campus student housing is likely to change the atmosphere at San Juan College. But Executive Vice President Edward DesPlas knows the biggest difference will be one of perception.

"There are many people who think that, in order to have a 'real college,' you have to have housing," he said. "We've always been a real college, but this satisfies some people's perception of what they want to see when they go out and visit a college."

DesPlas and other San Juan College officials will gather at an undeveloped spot on the northwest corner of the campus at 2 p.m. Feb. 19 to mark a milestone in the school's development by taking part in a groundbreaking ceremony for the college's first student housing development. Attendance at the event will be limited because of COVID-19 restrictions, but the ceremony will be livestreamed at

"I'm feeling total optimism," DesPlas said on the eve of the ceremony that marks the start of the project's construction. "Chris (Harrelson, the college's senior director of the physical plant) and I have been working very diligently on this for the last three or four years. We've run into some hurdles, we've run into some obstacles, but we've found the right path over the last year."

Edward DesPlas

Harrelson expects the facility's addition will have an enormous impact on the college.

"This is really a big cultural change to our campus that will be a game changer for students who want to move here and live and get their education," he said.

The 37,552-square-foot, three-story facility at the corner of Sunrise Parkway and Education Drive will house 150 students in one-, two- and four-bed units when construction is finished in the spring of 2022 and it opens for students that fall. It is being built at a cost of more than $10.5 million with the Jaynes Corporation serving as the construction manager. The facility will include a large common area with a kitchen, TV/study areas on each floor, and a supersized outdoor grill and dining area.

Getting to this point

DesPlas said the road to making the project a reality has been a difficult one. Since 2008, the college has commissioned five feasibility and marketing studies that examined the idea of building an on-campus student housing facility.

DesPlas said finding the right time to move forward with the project was crucial, and he said the last three of those studies — which were conducted in 2015, 2017 and 2018 – produced the kind of results that college officials wanted to see before committing to building the facility.

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An aerial view of the San Juan College campus in Farmington is featured. The college's new residential student facility will be built north of the Health and Human Performance Center, which is the large white building at left.

"All three of those had increasingly brighter green lights as far as being able to get capital and to fill the beds for student residences," he said.

Development of the project hasn't moved in a straight line over the past several years. DesPlas noted that college officials first tried to partner with a private developer to get the project financed and built before deciding that idea was not in the best interests of the college.

He also said that various other sites were explored for the project — some of them on campus and others off campus — before deciding on the location at Sunrise Parkway and Education Drive because of its proximity to the Health and Human Performance Center, hiking and biking trails, and other amenities that are considered to be important contributors to the quality of life for residential students.

"We couldn't figure out anyplace but our own campus to make this work for our students," he said. "Some people, when they run into bumps in the road like we did, they stop and go home. Every time we hit a bump, we took that as an indication not to stop and give up but to find another way to do what we've been dreaming of."

DesPlas acknowledged that residential student housing is not the norm for community colleges, but it is more common than most people think. He estimated that 28% of such institutions around the country offer on-campus living facilities for their students. He said it is much more common for colleges that serve a largely rural audience like San Juan College.

That was the case when DesPlas served as a vice president at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, earlier in his career. He explained that institution served 11 counties in the Nebraska panhandle, leading some students to drive considerable distances to attend classes.

"Our students came from these far-reaching areas, and they had to have housing in Scottsbluff," he said.

The same is true of San Juan College, DesPlas said, noting that some students regularly drive an hour or 90 minutes each day to attend class. Having an affordable, on-campus housing option will make life considerably easier for them, he said.

College officials recognized that for the project to be a success, they needed to add administrative personnel who had experience with on-campus housing, DesPlas said. With that thought in mind, the college has added Boomer Appleman, vice president for student services, and Deborah Chalmers, dean of students, to its roster in recent years.

"We've been putting this in place," DesPlas said. "It's more than financing, design and construction. We've been filling out our bench with people with this experience. We went out and looked for talent with people who can bolster our bench when we might have been a little light."

A change is gonna come

Harrelson said school officials have put a lot of thought into how having 150 students living at the college will change the dynamics of the campus. But he noted they aren't starting from scratch, as there are already staff members present around the clock six days a week.

Chris Harrelson

"Some of the challenges will be getting students fed, making sure they're secure, making sure they have all the amenities they need," he said. "We want to make sure they have the highest quality of life we can give them. We know there will be an increased demand for cleaning and an increased demand for study time in the library. We're hoping to provide that."

Students will have their choice of meal plans that will allow them to eat at Mary's Kitchen, the on-campus dining facility that DesPlas said was remodeled several years ago and has the capacity to serve many times the number of diners it currently does.

DesPlas is hopeful the presence of 150 residential students will lead to increased attendance at the campus' arts and cultural events, especially concerts, theater events and art openings.

"Absolutely," he said. "It's almost like having a captive audience."

He also is hopeful that having students reside at the college will lead to increased commercial development on the perimeter of the campus.

"I anticipate that happening," he said. "I hope some entrepreneur comes out and builds a miniature golf course. … There's all sorts of things that can cater to a student demographic."

College officials view development of the facility as only the first step. DesPlas said plans already are underway for phases two and three of student housing projects that could double or triple the number of students living on campus.

Whether those plans reach fruition will depend on how the first facility is received, but DesPlas is bullish about the positive impacts he expects the project to have. He pointed to studies that show that students who live on campus not only tend to achieve a higher GPA than those who don't, they also tend to have a more solid long-term relationship with the institution when their academic career is over.

"One-hundred fifty full-time students is not going to move the needle (on enrollment) a lot, but this is our chance to prove we can fill 150 beds," DesPlas said. " … We're going to make this a really inviting campus."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.