UND Memorial Union makes a cover splash

Special edition of Association of College Unions International’s magazine features UND in four-page spread

UND’s new Memorial Union was recently recognized in The Bulletin’s special “Renovation & Construction Showcase” issue. Photo by Shawna Noel Schill/UND Today.
Photo courtesy of The Bulletin of ACUI.

When Aaron Flynn was notified he had something to pick up downstairs at the UND Memorial Union’s mail center, he thought no hurry, no big deal.

But that was before he knew what had arrived.

It was the long-awaited “Renovation & Construction Showcase” issue of the 2022 Special Edition Bulletin of the Association of College Unions International. And the University of North Dakota had made the cover.

Now that was next-level, said Flynn, UND’s assistant director of Memorial Union Facilities & Operations.

“I’m already kind of an ACUI nerd and look forward to The Bulletin in general,” he said. “But to see the place we oversee and work every day on the cover, I was just so excited that I was running through the whole building looking for anyone I could find. I wanted to show everyone.

“One of the first people I ran into was our associate vice president for Student Affairs, Cassie Gerhardt, and I think I interrupted her Zoom meeting so I could show her the cover. I knew she would also recognize the excitement.”

A feather in many caps

Memorial Union Director Cheryl Grew-Gillen said she knew there was always a chance UND would make it into the issue, but no one expected to take over the cover — not to mention a four-page spread inside the magazine.

The recognition from the oldest and largest organization representing college unions worldwide was the culmination of many years of hard work, she said, and it was a feather in the cap for thousands.

“When you think about the journey and the layers and layers of expertise and experience from so many different professionals — designers, contractors, project managers, trades people — who really put this thing together, we’re all extremely proud to see this coverage come out,” she said.

Of course, it’s also an incredible source of pride for UND students past, present and future. Multiple student administrations had played a large role in getting the ball rolling, she said. And ultimately, it was a Student Government-led initiative and a 2018 student vote to increase student fees that made the $80 million project possible.

“When the architects came on board, they expressed surprise at the significant amount of student involvement,” Grew-Gillen said. “They were excited to see so much student input. They hadn’t seen student involvement to that extent on other campuses. We were very blessed that way.”

Aaron Flynn, UND assistant director of Memorial Union Facilities & Operations, attributes much of the new building’s popularity to its very open design and intentional use of physical space. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

‘Sense of pride’

The Bulletin article summed it up this way: “What resulted from the decision was a sense of pride, energy and excitement throughout the greater campus community in a facility that would become a destination point for anyone visiting the campus.

“Branded locations throughout the building and exterior spaces are now primary stops for University media, students and guests looking to capture photographs, selfies and other University marketing opportunities … and the use of Memorial Union spaces by student organizations has doubled.”

None of that is lost on Grew-Gillen or Flynn, who say the Memorial Union has received nothing but positive feedback and increased traffic.

“We now have a very precise way of tracking traffic in the building,” Flynn said. “And even from last year (when the new building first opened), our traffic numbers are way up. We are getting 800 to 1,000 more people in the building each day. So, the traffic numbers would suggest students are excited about the facility and are using it.”

Flynn, who frequented the old Memorial Union both as a student and a student-level manager, attributes much of the current Memorial Union’s popularity to its very open design and intentional use of physical space. There’s a spot for everything, he said. Right-sized study pods for individuals or groups. Adaptable ballrooms for big events. Active student organizations, food, relaxation and games.

“Immediately upon walking in, you can look up or down and get a pulse for everything that’s going on,” he said. “That just wasn’t possible in the old Union. Students have so many ways now to get involved and be a part of that UND community.”

Students gather for a bite to eat between classes. Flynn pointed out that unlike the former Memorial Union’s cafe area, the current design allows students to use the space even after the restaurant areas close up for the evening. Photo by Shawna Noel Schill/UND Today.

The love lives on

And Grew-Gillen said there isn’t a week that goes by where she doesn’t see a visitor — and sometimes multiple generations of alumni from one family — show up “just out of curiosity.”

“It’s just fantastic to be able to watch everyone’s expression when they walk in those doors and try to take it all in,” she said. “The history of UND kind of unfolds everywhere you look — in the iconic symbols, all the branding, the University seal on the floor. There’s absolutely no doubt that you’re at UND, and it all certainly makes us proud.”

Added Flynn: “We know alumni had a lot of fantastic experiences and love for their old Union, but when they walk in here, you can see in their faces that they’re just blown away. Everything exceeds their expectations. And that’s all on the students. They recognized a need for change and stepped up to the plate. They can be proud of a space that will continue to build community for many years to come.”

It’s impossible to thank everyone, but Grew-Gillen and Flynn also wanted to acknowledge the incredible work by WTW Architects, Pittsburgh, and JLG Architects, Grand Forks, as well as construction manager at risk McGough, Fargo, in partnership with Construction Engineers of Grand Forks.

The Memorial Union is filled with multiple right-sized spaces for individual or group study, as well as large events. Photo by Shawna Noel Schill/UND Today

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