As part of Homecoming festivities Saturday, Oct. 26, Northern Illinois University welcomed alumni and current students back to the remodeled first floor of the Holmes Student Center.
The renovated space will ultimately include two new restaurants, a coffee shop, a grab-and-go convenience store, a new bookstore, offices for key student organizations and services, as well as tens of thousands of square feet of space devoted to places where students can lounge, gather, collaborate and celebrate.
“To call this space remodeled is really a disservice,” said NIU President Dr. Lisa Freeman. “It has been completely reimagined, revamped and revitalized. We have transformed an outdated, uninviting space into a modern, vibrant hub of life on campus.”
The redesigned focused specifically on creating a place that students will be excited to visit.
“Our goal from the start was to give students a place that they will want to come, a place where they will feel comfortable hanging out, whether it is just taking a break between classes, attending a club meeting or enjoying some wings while watching a ballgame with friends,” said NIU Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Kelly Wesener-Michael. “Student input was vital to the vision that emerged for this project. We believe that this fulfills that vision and we are excited to see it come to life.”
One of the priorities of the project was to provide students with new dining options, including franchises that they already know and love. To meet that goal, the space includes a Starbucks, and a Qdoba Tex-Mex restaurant (scheduled to open in March 2020).
Students also expressed a desire for a “sports bar,” which designers incorporated into the new Huskie Den. With 12,000 square feet of space spread across two levels, the restaurant can accommodate more than 200 students. It will offer a menu ranging from gourmet burgers to hot wings to deep fried cheesecake, all served in an atmosphere that includes a dozen televisions for viewing sports, 12 tournament-quality pool tables and a stage for live entertainment. Starting next semester, the Huskie Den will open a bar that will serve beer and wine in the evenings.
The emphasis on quality dining goes beyond a desire to expand student dining options, says Wesener-Michael. “Eating is a communal experience that helps bring people together, and we are hoping that faculty and staff take advantage of these new venues and opportunity to get to know students in a new surrounding.”
While the dining options will attract curious (and hungry) students, chances are that the many different lounges and work spaces throughout the space will encourage them to stay. There are places to curl up in a chair and read, areas for working on group projects and spaces for holding meetings. In total, the first floor now boasts more than 8,000 square feet of lounge space (versus 4,000 in the previous layout), including a new transit lounge adjacent to a grab-and-go convenience store dubbed The Depot. A new, 6,000-square-foot bookstore, Huskie Books and Gear, is also adjacent to the transit lounge.
All the lounges include stylish, modern furniture, which was selected with input from students. It ranges from ultra-modern versions of wingback chairs, to conversation pits, to tiered, padded benches. Nearly all of the furniture is moveable, allowing students to rearrange it as they see fit throughout the day.
During the warmer months of the year, the patio area outside of the newly created ground-level entrance to the building will extend the lounge space outdoors. That entryway also reflects the university’s commitment to making the entire ground floor accessible to individuals with disabilities. In addition to the grade-level entrance, the space will include two new elevators (in the bookstore and the Huskie Den) and ramps throughout to provide easy access to all areas for all visitors.
The new Organizations and Student Involvement Suite (The OASIS) provides an additional 10,000 square feet of space where students can gather. Notable for its relative lack of walls, the space is designed specifically to encourage collaborative work. It includes large tables for group projects, conference rooms that can accommodate a dozen or more people, and a presentation space that can hold more than 100. All those facilities will be available for use by student organizations.
The OASIS also will be home to key student organizations, including the Student Association (the student government group that is part of NIU’s shared governance) and the Campus Activities Board. The Division of Student Affairs also will staff an office in this area to provide students easy access to all of the supports and services that they offer. All those organizations will officially move into the OASIS over the winter break in December and January.
While the look and feel of the remodeled space – from furnishings to technology – is distinctly contemporary, President Freeman is hoping that alumni will find a modern version of what they loved best.
“I speak with alumni who have wonderful memories of hanging out at the student union,” Dr. Freeman said. “It was such an important part of their experience, and I am very excited that we are bringing back that opportunity for today’s generation of Huskies.”
The university pushed up the timeline for the opening of the building. As a result, the new Starbucks and The Depot convenience store will operate on limited hours through the end of the semester as staff is added and trained. The same will be true of the Huskie Den after it opens Nov. 11.
“We wanted to open as soon as possible for our current students, but we are also very excited at the prospect of showing off the building this weekend to alumni who will have an appreciation for just what a transformation this has been,” said Dr. Freeman.
“I am very grateful to the many people on our campus who have worked so hard to make this dream a reality,” Freeman added. “This has been a wonderful collaboration between Student Affairs and Finance and Facilities, and they can be very proud of the final result.”