Talk to ATU faculty about their return home to Williamson Hall this semester and it is immediately obvious Williamson is so much more than a building.
After being away from Williamson for three and a half years, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Hospitality Administration returned in December of 2021, with classes resuming this spring.
For the hospitality faculty, who used the building extensively in the past for various events, including the ever-popular lunch and dinner series, the homecoming was especially meaningful.
“To me, Williamson is not a building, it is a feeling,” Susan West, associate professor of hospitality administration said. “While all the beautiful new designs and fresh paint and added elevator are incredible, this is not what delights me in returning. It is more of a sense of belonging,” she said.
Cass Capen-Housley, instructor and event coordinator in hospitality administration, knows full well that feeling about Williamson. “I have spent countless hours in Williamson and this building has a heart. You feel it when you walk in,” she said.
We sat down with Susan West and Cass Capen-Housley to find out exactly what Williamson Hall means to Arkansas Tech University.
What happened in April 2019?
Williamson Hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, caught fire on April 3, 2019. After insurance reviews of the fire damage concluded, the university’s Board of Trustees voted on Jan. 16, 2020, to proceed with the project to restore Williamson Hall for service as an academic building.
The department was relocated off-campus during that time with its most recent location at 404 North El Paso. Thanks to the determination of the faculty, the hospitality program not only survived but thrived.
How did the department thrive in that environment?
“I think one way we kept the program thriving was we kept being innovative. When conferences started to shift online we decided to continue engaging with our partners. We looked to see what the current industry was doing and shared that in class,” Capen-Housley said.
“I think the whole department had to come up with ideas to create the continued experiential teaching for our students,” she said.
For her classes, as an example, students came up with “take and bake options”, rather than the traditional dining service. In fact, that option was so successful, “guests continue to ask when we are going to start that again,” she said.
“As far as conferences and field trips we take students to, well, we shifted to virtual conferences and virtual tours of event spaces,” Capen-Housley said.
In her Catering and Events class, for instance, the students met virtually with one of their clients.
“What this showed students is that virtual is not going away and we need to embrace it. If we can’t meet in person, that does not mean we can’t ever meet. We can meet online through many of the online platforms offered,” she said.
West said that innovation was the result of faculty making the most of the facilities and opportunities they were given in the interim.
She said in her Meetings and Conventions class while at 404, the class created a Career Opportunity Day, that was mixed virtual.
Instead of transitioning to a WebeEx venue, the students utilized department iPads to set up virtual events on each iPad. Students in the rooms had headphones and were able to speak individually speak with different vendors while all in the same space over the course of about three hours.
“We overcame no matter the space given. We made the decision to work with what we had and we achieved and are stronger because of it all,” West said.
Now that space is once again Williamson.
Returning to Williamson
“So now we have returned, and it has made every day a special occasion; a place that is frequented and a space that many students will be able to call home again,” West said.
“The students have a place they can begin to develop and learn and hopefully one day, return to impart wisdom onto new students,” she added.
“When I walk down the halls or into the new classrooms, it is not just a WOW moment; it is a plethora of memories from former students that made me laugh, aided me in becoming a better professor and mentor, and a few that made me cry. It is all just a sense of place. Williamson is about community. It is a place where students and faculty bond around a shared value of student success. We are overjoyed to be back.”
For Capen-Housley, who held several positions on campus before moving into hospitality that sense of community has always existed. In fact, from the moment she first arrived in Williamson, it felt like home.
“Why? Because this was my dream job. I get to cook, manage events, and teach — all the things I love — in a really cool building with lots of character and stories,” she said.
“No matter if it was watching the sunrise over Baswell or seeing the sunset over the baseball field, Williamson was witness with me. She [Williamson Hall] has seen students walk up and down her halls to better themselves. They graduate and take a piece of her with them as they set out into the world to represent not only PRHA but Tech.”
Capen-Housley said Williamson was just as welcoming upon their return as it was when she first stepped foot in the building as a faculty member in 2014.
“This time she has been polished to all her glory and it is the best feeling to be back in the halls, kitchen and dining room, making more memories for hopefully another 100 years.”