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The House Built for Students

October 2004

It was the first day students could move into their residence halls. While parents jockeyed cars into position in front of dorms, freshmen saw to easier tasks: signing release forms, getting student IDs and picking up keys. The line was long, at times extending around the food court and up the stairs to the post office.

Why I decided to eat lunch in the new university center that day, I have no idea. But I'm glad I did.

For amidst the swish of air hockey coming from the game room, the ka-ching of cash registers ringing up yogurt smoothies and the high-pitched shrieks of coeds spying friends for the first time since last spring, one voice echoed above the din: "Wow, I can't believe this building is on our campus."

I have no idea who the student was, but the awe in her eyes was apparent. In fact, I was so taken aback by her emotional, vocal response to the building that I stopped eating the artichoke dip and chips I was devouring and sat back in my chair for a moment. It was the first time it occurred to me that this was in fact the realization of my dream as a student just a few years earlier: to create a place that would not just enhance student life at SAU, but celebrate it as a vital part of the St. Ambrose community.

A center for synergy

Actually, even before it opened, the recently dedicated Rogalski Center had already given students the opportunity to engage in the collaborative experiences a new university center would promote. From the very beginning, students played a major role in designing the space. As a member of the University Center Planning Committee during my junior and senior years at St. Ambrose, I and other students on the committee were asked to provide input about everything, from how this building might be used by students in their everyday routine to how the Campus Activities Board might configure their portable stage to accommodate different venues for the Java Jams concert series.

I noticed something early on in the process: The architect was listening. The dean of students was listening. Even board members were listening.

Together, they would take what we students had expressed and would do whatever they could to make it work.

What stands today is the result of that inclusive process. And not only does the university center have what students asked that it physically contain-lounges for studying and for relaxing, places to meet and work and gather-but it embodies their idea of what such a space should feel like, and how it should make them feel: at home, a part of a family, and a part of a community.

"It's like students gravitate toward the building-it really has changed the entire layout of campus," Julie Restarski, an executive on CAB, told me in their new office in the Student Activities workroom. "In the past, I always thought that Tiedemann and Hagen halls were closed off from the rest of campus. But now, it's like the entire campus is more centralized, more centered."

"Even the furniture is cool," with its fusion of orange, teal and black patterns, quips Alexis Ingersoll, a sophomore resident advisor. "But the chairs still need to be broken in a bit."

I ran into Alexis and Cosgrove Hall Director Brooke Evans in mid-September after having lunch in the center. The two were enjoying one of those yogurt smoothies on the west patio during their weekly Residence Life one-on-one meeting, which just a year prior was held in Brooke's office.

"An environment such as this opens up dialogue in ways you just don't get when a desk is separating staff from student," says Evans. "The very nature of a building like this fosters a stronger, more personal relationship between my staff and me. And it gets us out of the office."

Building pride

The Rogalski Center is unquestionably a building that promotes this kind of interaction, and my impromptu visit to the CAB office brought that purpose full circle for me. It wasn't so much the conversation that Julie and I had as it was her manner. As I approached the CAB office, I could hear music coming from the computer, and Julie and CAB President Heidi Haessig talking about how well the recent Welcome Week went. When I interrupted them, they welcomed me with the kind of "hey, check out our cool new digs" pride that I never felt as CAB president, with our musty-smelling office in the basement of Ambrose Hall.

As I walked to my car after work that day, I gave Veronica Riepe, director of student activities and a fellow member of the University Center Planning Committee, a call on my cell phone.

"It was really neat to see those students working in there today," I said to Riepe, now my colleague, as I had migrated to the staff side of St. Ambrose soon after my graduation. "We did get this building right."

While recent graduates of St. Ambrose express envy-myself among them-about how lucky current students are, we actually are benefiting, in a very real sense, from the building that we helped to make real. It's part of our legacy to students today, and those that will come after them.

And that alone is worth celebrating.

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