A week before the University of Miami was set to unveil its new Student Activities Center, Miami Hurricane newspaper editor Stephanie Parra sat at a computer workstation inside the 119,000-square-foot, three-story complex while putting the finishes touches on a feature story.
“We’re all in,” Parra said of her newspaper staff, one of many student-run groups that have already moved into the center ahead of its opening. “In our old space, we had a photo lab that was from the ’70s. But this place is truly amazing.”
Now, with a new school year under way, thousands of other students will share in Parra’s enthusiasm. Today, UM formally opens its much-anticipated Student Activities Center—a decade-in-the-making project that UM President Donna E. Shalala said has already “transformed the look and feel of our campus.”
“It’s more than a stunning building—it’s at the heart of student learning, living, and playing, and it sets the pulse for an exciting and rewarding college experience,” said Shalala, who envisioned the center not long after she arrived at the University.
A formal opening ceremony for the center will be held Monday, August 26, at noon. The official dedication ceremony will be held November 7.
“The student involvement and enthusiasm for this project has remained true from 2003 until now, passed on from class to class,” said Daniel Westbrook, executive director of the Whitten University Center and Student Activities Center. “It is a tribute to the forethought of all the students from the last decade that they were able to work toward this goal, and now it is a reality. This facility provides an opportunity to build community, a place for students to share their cultures, their celebrations, and their varied interests with other students, staff, faculty, and visitors.”
Among its features: a two-story Rathskeller built near the site of the original eatery and campus pub that was demolished to make room for the center; a Starbucks (UM now has two of the popular coffee shops); a media suite that houses The Miami Hurricane, Ibis Yearbook, and Distraction magazine; offices and cubicles for student organizations; a grand ballroom that can seat more than 1,000 people theater-style and be divided into three sections; a study suite open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and extensive meeting and activity space.
Located on the shore of Lake Osceola, the hurricane-themed building features wave, wind, and raindrop patterns on its first, second, and third floors, respectively. With spaces that maximize the use of daylight, a rainwater management system, native landscaping, and a plan to implement a recycling program after the facility opens, the center is designed to achieve silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Seventeen video screens throughout the facility will provide event and marketing information.
But it is the critical office space that is arguably the facility’s most important benefit. With the center’s opening, student organizations that once had to share space at the Whitten University Center now have space dedicated specifically for them, said Chelsea Buffington, associate director of the UC and Student Activities Center.
“A game changer” is how Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs, describes it. “It’ll foster enhanced student engagement, programming, and a renewed sense of community for our campus,” she said.
Designed by Arquitectonica and built by Fort Lauderdale-based Moss & Associates, the Student Activities Center is made possible by a $20 million lead gift from the Fairholme Foundation as well as a 2006 referendum in which students voted overwhelmingly to impose a fee on themselves to fund not only the facility’s construction but also the renovation of the adjacent Whitten University Center.
The Student Activities Center is part of what is now called the Student Center Complex, which also encompasses the Whitten University Center, UC patio and pool, Foote University Green, the U statue, and The Rock. “The things that happen in the Student Center Complex will help define what it means to be a ’Cane for every student from this point forward,” said Westbrook.
Bhumi Patel, president of UM Student Government, which has an office at the new building, said it is a center “built for students and, in a sense, by students.” She noted that the Student Activities Center Advisory Board, consisting of a member from each of the student groups, met regularly to discuss everything from the building’s operating policies to the furniture that would go inside.
“We wanted a space that would be conducive to facilitating great communication among students, and with this center, we’ve achieved that,” said Patel, who explained that having Graduate Student Association and Law School Student Organization suites at the center will create “greater camaraderie among students.”
Buffington said the center demonstrates UM’s devotion to students. “To have a building that’s 119,000 square feet and where the vast majority of that space is for students shows UM’s commitment to the student body,” she said.
Excitement over the building is already at a peak. Hundreds of students returning to campus for the start of the new academic school year flocked to the building on the University’s official move-in day, lining up to eat at the new Rathskeller, which opened August 21, and gazing up at the promenade that offers a view of Lake Osceola.
It will host its first wedding in December—two UM alumni whose nuptials will take place at the site.
“I can’t think of all the adjectives in the world to describe this place,” said UM alumnus Brandon Gross, assistant director of the Student Center Complex, who was speaker pro tempore of the Student Senate in 2006 when the referendum to build the center was passed. Gross served as president of SG during the 2008-09 academic year.
“Our students go on conferences all the time. Now, we can host those conferences here,” said Gross. “Students needed space for their growing organizations. Now, they have that space. They can be proud about bringing guests to our University and this Student Activities Center that belongs to them. They come first in every decision we make for this complex.”