From vision to reality: A behind-the-scenes look at The New Student Center Initiative

    An artist's conception of the new student center proposal. Photo by Workshop Architects, courtesy of Brad Stewart.

    Norris University Center is getting a makeover. And considering that student complaints about Norris are about as old as the building itself, the change - made possible by the students behind The New Student Center Initiative - is long overdue. 

    In mid-April, the Initiative, a project of ASG, revealed a 3D animated potential blueprint of Northwestern’s future student center. The building is projected to be completed in 2018 or 2019, according to Brad Stewart, the 2012-2013 ASG executive vice president and an active member of the initiative.

    “Norris is 40 years old,” Stewart said. “As quickly as two years after it was built people started complaining about it. Four years after it was built there was a few-fledged movement for a new student center. Complaints about Norris have been going on for a lifetime.”

    The problem? Students thought Norris’s construction and location prevented it from serving its purpose as a center for student life. Constructed during the early 70s, it was built “inward” to be riot-proof; according to Stewart, people inside Norris can be locked in on any floor. This, coupled with the relatively small size of Norris, created a crammed atmosphere within the building, he said. 

    Additionally, the location of Norris is closer to South Campus than it is to North Campus, discouraging North Campus students from using the space. And university services like University Career Services are scattered around campus instead of being located at Norris. 

    Discussions about Norris' functionality as a community hub surfaced as far back as 2008, when ASG began to seriously consider pushing for a new student center. In 2010, then-ASG president Mike McGee (Comm '10) and vice president Tommy Smithburg (WCAS '10) approached Ash Jaidev (WCAS '12) and asked him if he would like to be the director of the  Initiative. Jaidev accepted, taking on the responsibility of leading a group of students in reaching out to peers and administrators to gather ideas for a new student center.

    “Our team of eight people that grew to a team of roughly 20, and in my mind [we organized it as] a three-pronged approach,” Jaidev said.

    This approach comprised student outreach, research on newly-constructed student centers at other universities and administrative outreach.

    Jaidev’s team went door-to-door handing out petitions and surveys asking students what their ideal student center would include. They spoke with as many administrators as possible, including President Morton Schapiro, and attended four Board of Trustees meetings, receiving a more positive response at each meeting, Jaidev said. 

    The Intitiative believes support and awareness for their cause has increased this year. Weinberg senior Amalia Namath, one of the most active members of the group, attributed the plan's popularity to “dorm storming,” or speaking to directly to freshmen, and social media.

    “We decided to put up a very simple website and a very simple option for students to tag and gain feedback,” Namath said. “Because of the social media, it’s really kind of gained publicity on campus.”

    This feedback is a top priority for the Initiative team, who want the new student center to be built from a grassroots campaign of student ideas. And from these ideas, the Initiative leaders envision a student center that “turns the building inside out,” according to Stewart.

    Among other potential “inside-out” plans, the Initiative leaders want to take advantage of its lakefill location by adding more windows and merging pool tables and other forms of entertainment with the food areas to prevent people from coming to Norris to simply “eat and leave,” Stewart said.

    Stewart says he understands that the university has a lot of priorities, including mental health concerns, the addressing of which he believes should take precedent over building a new student center, but believes that a new Norris could help build community and even positively affect campus morale. 

    “There are many priorities and we are cognizant of that,” he said. “One reason I think the student center needs to be a top priority is because we’ve been talking for a decade now about 'one Northwestern' and building a central community.”

    Stewart added that the new student center would not be drawing funds from any other student resource. He said the university is raising $250 million to be allocated to student life initiatives, and that the Initiative will ask for $150 million to go towards the student center.

    Jaidev said the Initiative is heading in a good direction, despite some deviations from the original plans made when he was director. The largest difference between the current concept and the original was that the original Initiative team had hoped to move the student center to the parking lot of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary just behind the Kellogg building, which would sit nicely between North and South campus. This plan could not be realized, however, because the land on which Garrett and its parking lot is built is leased to Garrett by Northwestern.

    Construction of the new student center is currently scheduled to begin in 2016, once the Kellogg School of Management has relocated from Andersen Hall to a new location on the North campus lakefront. The student center will be temporarily moved to Andersen while work begins at Norris and a new student center is built.


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