Thursday, January 11, 2018

A building for belonging: Not just a hangout, the new UIS Student Union hopes to bring a community together

“The coolest thing is that so many students participated in big and small ways,” says John Tienken, a former University of Illinois Springfield student trustee who is now a law student at the University of Chicago. Tienken is one of those students who contributed in a big way and was a driving force behind development of the UIS Student Union.

The same can be said for many alumni and members of the community contributing in big and small ways. Thus far 225 people have donated to the Student Union. One gave $2, and many donated $10, $25, $50 and $100. Two donors each contributed $1.5 million.

Collectively students, university leaders, faculty, staff and community members have rallied around building the Student Union, which UIS Chancellor Susan Koch calls the “new heart of the campus.” 

The new Student Union, opening Jan. 14, encompasses 52,000 square feet, cost $21.75 million, and is located on the south end of the Main Quad. A two-story atrium with large glass windows provides views of the Colonnade to the north. The adjacent 25,000-square-foot outdoor plaza blurs the line between inside and out.

Designed by Dewberry (Peoria) and Workshop Architects (Milwaukee), the new Student Union sits at the crossroads of the campus.

A Student Union Committee, which included students, faculty, staff and university leaders, provided extensive input.

Until now there has been no central gathering place for students at UIS, no dedicated space for student organizations, no place for students to hang out between classes. The only places to meet were the cafeteria, lobbies of academic buildings or small lounges in out-of-the-way locations.

Features of the new Student Union include a Student Leadership Center, multiple lounge areas, diverse dining options, a Starbucks, large ballroom for university and community events, and large and small meeting areas and conference rooms.

The Student Union is not just a new campus building and a nice place for students to hang out and drink coffee. It is expected to transform the student experience. Officials hope it will also provide a greater sense of belonging to the campus and university, serve as a catalyst for discussion and engagement, and connect the community with the campus.

Says Chancellor Koch, “Research shows that great student unions impact student retention and student recruitment. With increased enrollment being one of our top three UIS priorities, building a Student Union was a perfect fit. The Student Union creates a sense of place. UIS is a young campus, and this is a significant building in the development of our university.”

“Unions are places to engage with one another, meet new people, lead through organizations and work, and challenge one another to build a better campus and world community,” says Ann Comerford, executive director of the Student Union.

The new Student Union demonstrates what can be accomplished when students, university leaders, faculty and staff, and community members work together to achieve a common goal. State funds cannot be used to build student unions. It is being built through a combination of student fees collected over a period of years beginning when the building opens, along with generous donations.

The goal is to raise $8 million in private contributions. There are already commitments for more than $6.2 million.

In April 2012 students voted overwhelmingly to support the Student Union through student fees, but this did not happen automatically. The first referendum in the spring of 2010 failed.

Tienken and others delved into the issue to learn from the past referendum, get student input and encourage others to get involved, including those not part of student government but who wanted to make a difference. They held informational sessions, had a BBQ on the Quad, created posters, talked about the benefits of a student union, spread information on the referendum, created videos and developed enthusiasm and support. They learned a lot about executing a successful campaign, and their efforts paid off. In April 2012 students passed the referendum by a 4 to 1 margin to support assessing student fees to build the union.

When people look back on their university experiences, some of those memories are brighter than the academics. It is so important for students to be able to congregate with their fellow students and hang out.” former Springfield Mayor Karen Hasara was a member of the U of I Board of Trustees when the board voted in favor of the project.

Given her long involvement with the university from being a student to serving as trustee, Hasara also chose to donate to the Student Union project. She dedicated her donation to the student trustee room, which is part of the Student Leadership Center.

A gift to the community Hasara says the Student Union is not just a gift to the university, but it is also a gift to the community.

This story appeared in The Illinois Times on January 11, 2018.

Read the entire article online.