This new residence hall at ODU will be named after ‘the Nelson Mandela of Hampton Roads’

This is a rendering of what Owens House will look like. Groundbreaking for the 470-bed residence hall is scheduled for this month. (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of ODU)
This is a rendering of what Owens House will look like. Groundbreaking for the 470-bed residence hall is scheduled for this month. (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of ODU)

NORFOLK — More college students than ever want to live on campus, and studies have shown that those who do are more likely to succeed academically.

Old Dominion University houses about 5,000 students on campus, and with the largest freshman class in history enrolling this past fall, the university is experiencing an increased demand for residential housing.

In an effort to help meet that demand, ODU is scheduled to break ground this month on a state-of-the-art, 470-bed student residence hall, to be known as Owens House.

The residence hall will combine living and learning in a unique way and will be part of the university’s residential quad of student housing.

Owens House will also pay homage to the legacy of a local civil rights icon who was a long-time supporter of the university.

Hugo A. Owens Sr., once described by former ODU President James V. Koch as “the Nelson Mandela of Hampton Roads,” was the university’s first African-American rector in 1993 and had a lifelong history of fighting for equal rights.

Owens House will be located on 49th Street near Powhatan Avenue, next door to the Dominion House residence hall. At five stories, it will be ODU’s second-largest residential facility, behind Whitehurst Hall, which houses about 600 students.

It is designed to marry living and learning. Most of the 470 beds will be occupied by cybersecurity, entrepreneurial and STEM-H students, those majoring in science, technology, engineering, math and health sciences.

“The plan is for these students to live and study together in a way that reflects the legacy of Dr. Owens of diversity and inclusivity,” said Chris Pewterbaugh, a project manager for design and construction.

There will be some housing on the first floor, said Don Stansberry, dean of students and associate vice president of Student Engagement and Enrollment Services. But most of the first floor will be set aside for academic space.

There will be two classrooms, two project rooms, a cybersecurity lab, a learning commons area, some group study rooms and a large multi-purpose room for events, he said.

There will be study areas on every floor on both wings of the building and an office where professors can hold office hours.

Entrepreneurial students can begin work on projects at Owens House and finish them at the Strome Entrepreneurial Center.

“The great thing about this building is that students will live together, socialize and go right downstairs to class. It is designed for the living-learning experience and will be a home away from home,” Stansberry said.

ODU already has 13 living-learning communities on campus, from the honors college community in the Virginia House to the ROTC community in Whitehurst Hall.

ODU’s Living-Learning Communities

Gail Dodge, dean of the College of Sciences and professor of physics, said the new residence hall will help ODU attract even more STEM-H students.

“It’s important for students to know that they can come here and actually live in a brand-new residential facility with other STEM-H students,” Dodge said.

“Students in our living-learning facilities get a lot of interactive time with faculty, and that’s so valuable for them.

“When you put students together who have the same goal, they can reinforce learning and help motivate each other. It’s going to be such a beautiful facility. I think it will be a big recruiting tool for us.”

The three children of Hugo Owens said they are deeply grateful that the University is honoring their father.

“My father, from a young age, was trying to get simple justice for everyone to use public facilities,” Hugo Owens Jr. said. “Even the cemeteries were segregated.

“They called him a radical, a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser. But he was a very steady, reasoned man who took a stand when he knew something was wrong.”

He did so long before the South was integrated. After returning from service in World War II and graduating from Howard University with a degree in dentistry, Owens set up a practice in Portsmouth in 1947 and quietly began working behind the scenes with civil rights leaders.

In 1950, he sued to integrate Portsmouth city parks after he and his daughter, Paula, were run out of a park by a groundskeeper because they were black. He then helped to desegregate the city’s libraries and what was then Portsmouth General Hospital.

He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who asked him to move to Atlanta to help his efforts to advance civil rights. But Owens declined, preferring to work in his native Hampton Roads.

He was later elected to Chesapeake City Council, serving 10 years, including eight as vice mayor, and also served as rector of Virginia State University.

He died in 2008 at age 92 shortly after Helen, his wife of 66 years, passed away. Patrice Owens Parker, Owens’ daughter, said her parents met when his father was 8 years old. They began dating when they were 16 and were married nine years later.

“Our mom was his rock,” she said. “She took care of everything at home. He could not have accomplished what he did without her.”

ODU President John R. Broderick, who received the Dr. Hugo A. Owens Sr. Humanitarian Award in 2017, recommended to the University’s Board of Visitors that the residence hall be named for Owens.

“I was always so impressed with his wisdom and humility,” Broderick said. “I don’t believe he recognized how many lives he favorably touched through service, advocacy and dentistry.

“And with his gentle and yet wise approach, he provided strong leadership for the university as rector, and always served as a role model for ODU students.”

Paula Owens Parker, the daughter with whom Hugo Owens was chased out of a public park, said the family loves the concept of the residence hall named for their father.

“Just looking at it, the way it’s laid out, the green space, with openness for people to gather, that’s kind of who my father was,” she said.

Hugo Owens Jr. said the family is thrilled that decades from now, ODU students who have yet to be born will see his father’s picture and learn about his dedication to equal rights.

“Old Dominion is the most diverse university that I know of,” he said. “It’s the perfect place to honor our father’s legacy.”

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John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.