A building for belonging

Article in the Illinois Times –  Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018

Not just a hangout, the new UIS Student Union hopes to bring a community together

The green roof on top of the UIS Student Union shows its red fall colors in November 2017. The roof will help reduce energy use, making the building more environmentally friendly. UIS is seeking a LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

“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. The building was designed to be bright and spacious, visually transparent, student-centered, highly flexible, easily navigated, contemporary and contextual, simple and elegant. It is an icon for the campus and the entire University of Illinois system. The building represents a commitment to the long-term growth of the Springfield campus, with sustainability as a central design feature.

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 open and airy floor plan is warm and inviting, conducive to small and large group gatherings. There are adjacent spaces that are more secluded for studying or private conversations.

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.

UIS Chancellor Susan Koch tours construction of the UIS Student Union on April 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of UIS

Susan Koch emphasizes the Student Union has been a student-driven project from the beginning. Student leaders came to her and said, “You’ve got to help us.” 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. “Students are drawn to campuses that are lively and engaged. This space will be a visible representation of a lively and engaged community.” Comerford was hired in August 2017. In her new role, she will supervise Student Union operations and staff overseeing Civic Engagement and Volunteer Services, and Student Life. She was at Western Illinois University for 18 years, serving as director of its union for the past several years.

Making it happen

John Tienken was one of the first students to approach Koch about the Student Union early in her tenure nearly seven years ago. Since then Chancellor Koch has been a tireless advocate for the project. 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.

Construction workers install the large glass windows in the UIS Student Union on March 23, 2017. It is an open building with great views of the UIS quad. Photo courtesy of UIS

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. John Tienken was a freshman at the time. A Political Science and English major, he also wrote for the student newspaper. He thought a Student Union seemed like a good idea and, after being elected student trustee in 2011, decided to try again.

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.

The new UIS Student Union will serve as the campus living room, complete with comfy coaches, tables and chairs. It provides a space for students to study or take a break between classes. Photo courtesy of UIS

Tienken describes UIS as being a unique place, with a lot of traditional students in a residential environment, but also many commuters from nearby communities. There has been no place for these students to hang out between classes, convene for small group discussions or have a convenient and functional place to go on campus outside of class. Tienken graduated in 2013 and knew the Student Union wouldn’t come to fruition during his time as a student. Nevertheless, he continued to support the cause as a donor, knowing he will experience the union as an alum and wanting to support the mission he helped plan.

As a student trustee from 2011-2013, Tienken had the opportunity to work with Karen Hasara, former Springfield mayor, who was a member of the University of Illinois System Board of Trustees for eight years. Hasara has a long involvement with UIS since its beginnings as Sangamon State University (SSU). Hasara was in the first SSU graduating class in 1972 and also received her master’s degree from SSU. Hasara says, “Life outside academics of a university are extremely valuable. 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.”

Hasara was a member of the U of I Board of Trustees when the board voted in favor of the project. She says Susan Koch played a crucial role in advocating for the project to the Board of Trustees and getting their support. “Chancellor Koch brought up the Student Union at every opportunity. Susan is so well trusted and respected by the board, administration and the community. The project would not have happened if Susan Koch weren’t so well respected by the board.”

As a trustee, Hasara has seen the benefits of the student trustee role and believes in the important role of mentorship between board members and student trustees. 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.

The Starbucks, located on the 2nd floor of the UIS Student Union, is seen here under construction in September. The Starbucks is a full-service facility offering coffee, food and other beverages. Photo courtesy of UIS

Selecting the team, designing the building

Although the building is not being constructed with state funds, the process of architect selection followed well-defined university procedures for new building construction. Twenty-nine firms submitted proposals, and five finalists were selected to make presentations on campus. A committee consisting of staff, students, faculty and the chancellor scored the proposals. The winning team was Dewberry, which has over 60 years of experience designing higher education facilities, and Workshop Architects, which has extensive experience designing student unions and creating environments for social interaction and creative expression.

Chancellor Koch says it was an inclusive design process, with more than 100 people involved, including students, faculty and staff. Students placed a high priority on sustainability and the goal of achieving LEED Gold certification. The result is a high-tech building, designed for students who are “digital natives.” The university’s culinary team helped design the kitchen and dining areas, and there will be engaging food service with a commitment to farm-to-table and healthy eating. A Starbucks on the mezzanine level is expected to be a popular meeting place. A large ballroom will provide an exciting new venue for a wide range of university events and also be available to rent by outside parties. From food service to technology to environmental components, many aspects of the building provide unique educational opportunities.

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. Anne Morgan echoes that sentiment about the community value of the Student Union. She, too, has a long association with UIS that dates back to Sangamon State University and can remember when there were only temporary buildings and when the Sangamon Auditorium opened. Morgan’s father was a senior administrator at a small college in Ohio, and she saw early on in her life the impact a college can have on a community. She believes UIS makes Springfield a stronger place. She and her husband, Saul Morse, have been deeply involved with the university for many years. Morse has been an adjunct professor at UIS and serves on the U of I Foundation Board. They both have served as volunteers on many UIS committees. Morse, as well as their son and daughter, graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so they have a strong affiliation with the overall university system and are deeply committed to making a strong UIS. Now that UIS is a residential campus, Morgan says there is a need for a Student Union as a central gathering place. She notes that people who come to events at the campus will also have the opportunity to take advantage of the new building.

Morgan finds the civic engagement aspect of the Student Union especially compelling. A significant feature of the new building is a Student Leadership Center, with spaces for student government, student life and the Volunteer and Civic Engagement Center. There will be offices, meeting rooms, lounge spaces and access to the latest technologies. With its brand, Leadership Lived, providing opportunities for volunteerism is central to UIS.

With no extended family in Springfield, Morgan says volunteering on boards and being involved in the community helps build a sense of connection. She says when she was in college, there were few such opportunities, but now students have extensive opportunities to get involved in the Springfield community and volunteer. She says it is a plus that UIS sees civic engagement as a core value.

The Student Union will not only be a resource accessible to the community, but it will help bring students into the community. For these reasons, Anne Morgan and Saul Morse chose to dedicate their donation for the Student Union to the Center for Volunteer and Civic Engagement.

Current and former students; community members; university administrators, faculty, and staff are all looking forward to the grand opening on Jan. 14 at the beginning of the spring semester. John Tienken and Jamaal Hollins will both be in attendance. Hollins graduated in 2014 with a degree in computer science, was student trustee from 2013-2014, and served on the Student Union Planning Committee. He says, “During my time there at UIS, I always felt like there was one big thing missing and that was a place exclusively for students. As it stands currently, students do not entirely have a place to call their own besides their campus housing. Student events, organizations and other services are vital to student success. Whether it is holding student government meetings, putting on student activities or just finding a place to relax and study outside of classes, the union will be a place where they feel like it is truly only for them. This is why I feel the building will be the most important addition to the campus since its opening.”

Karen Ackerman Witter retired from the State of Illinois and is a part-time freelance writer and museum consultant. She took continuing education classes at Sangamon State University in the 1980s. As a longtime resident of Springfield, she has seen the many ways UIS contributes to students and the quality of life in our community.