It’s been a month since the University of Florida (UF) welcomed the renovated and expanded Reitz Student Union to its campus with a week-long grand opening celebration. I had the good fortune to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony where I reconnected with university leaders, students, former students and parents. Everyone was excited about the new student union and all it offers UF. It was a proud moment for me, as I led the student engagement process and supported our Washington-based team in the programming/planning for the building.
By the numbers, Reitz Student Union renovated 90,000 sf of existing space and adds 126,000 sf of new space. The Union brings key departments including the Career Resource Center, Center for Leadership & Service, GatorWell, Multicultural & Diversity Affairs, Student Activities, Student Government and Student Legal Services organizations under one roof to enhance collaboration. Other building amenities include a dance studio, food court and dining areas, a game room, lounge and study space, ballroom and office space for student organizations. It’s a powerful space that instantly enhances the student experience.
As the result of my leadership role in the early stages of the project and then participating in the opening, there are several key memories and elements of the Union that stand out.
Here’s a look at the three that I believe make the Reitz exceptional:
The University of Florida truly wanted students to have a key voice in the design of this project. During the design stage, I would regularly travel from Boston to meet with my colleagues on campus to engage students in Town Hall meetings, group discussions, and meetings with student leaders. We’d set up shop in the former student union and ask students to take surveys on iPads and write down ideas on presentation paper. We even blogged and did Twitter Q&A with students. We left no stone unturned in making sure we engaged the UF students to make the Reitz Union a space that would fully meet their needs.
During the building dedication ceremony, a recent UF graduate, who was key to helping us engage students a few years back, beamed with pride as she addressed the crowd. “This is an example of how students can make a difference,” she said as she listed the myriad student engagement efforts. As she closed her brief remarks, she concurred that she felt we (UF, the CD team, and the students) had collectively Made It Reitz. I loved hearing those words as it revealed that our engagement process had been a differentiator in Sarah’s experience and helped us to see UF from the students’ perspective.
Bringing Everyone Together
One of the most rewarding pieces of any project is helping universities find synergies they may not even have looked for initially. The Reitz Union not only provides needed spaces for students, but it brings together several departments, such as UF Multicultural & Diversity Affairs, Student Government, etc. Previously, these organizations were spread across campus meaning students had to go to multiple places to connect with important student resources. Student feedback and interviews with these organizations began to reveal the power of bringing different departments together. We believe the Reitz Union will be a place that increases collaboration, connectivity, and positively impacts the future of campus.
It’s too early to know the exact connections these results will spur, but early anecdotal evidence suggests the organizations are excited about the possibilities. They can engage more often. They can access more students. They’re located in the newest (and oldest) student-run building on campus. Reitz Union lays the foundation for exciting future connections.
Making Gator Nation Proud
From the outset of this project, the CannonDesign team was charged with creating a union that could only be found at UF, the heart of Gator nation. We believe that’s exactly what we’ve delivered. The most overt reference is at the building entry where you enter under a structure that resembles the open mouth of a gator. Inside, one can see the Albus wood ceiling shaped as the underbelly of an alligator. Elsewhere, images of gators are folded in railings, art, and other design elements. Essentially everywhere you stand within the facility, you can find a nod to Gator Nation. At the opening, we learned a Gator scavenger hunt will now become part of freshman orientation! This is a building personally created to meet the current and future needs of the University, as well as further strengthen its brand.
UF Vice President for Student Affairs Dave Kratzer caught up with our team after the ribbon cutting and told us how much he loved all the references to Gator Nation. He also told us that it’s the only facility he’s ever been involved with that looked better than the renderings. This was music to our team’s ears.
The Reitz Union is a special place ideally suited for the UF campus. It was a pleasure working with their team and their students to make this happen. I look forward to engaging more universities in similar efforts in the future, where student engagement, collaboration, research and a focus on branding help us create campus facilities that meet specific campus needs.