Memorial Union open for business

From top to bottom, UND’s new Memorial Union boasts synergies and sleek designs to help the campus community thrive

Highlighted by large “UND” lettering, the new UND Memorial Union building stands open as the fall semester gets underway. Staffers and students alike say they’re excited for the updated gathering spaces, useful student services and many amenities provided by the new facility. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

With its doors having opened on Monday, Aug. 23, the official start of fall semester classes, UND’s new Memorial Union is ready for business.

And throughout its 158,351 square feet, three stories and extensive lineup of amenities, the new facility’s “business” is that of students, first and foremost.

High-touch, forward-facing departments such as One-Stop Student Services, Career Services, Student Diversity & Inclusion, Student Government, Student Involvement, the Pride Center and the International Center now call the Memorial Union home. New varieties of meeting spaces, including a “Social Stair” on the lower level, accompany two separate, multifunctional ballrooms on the second floor equipped with Loop assistive hearing technology.

“What we have now is the core of what was critical to the previous facility, and there’s more,” said Cassie Gerhardt, associate vice president for Student Affairs & Diversity and associate dean of students. “Everything about the old Memorial Union has been amplified and updated to better serve our campus community and students.”

As Fall 2021 brings many students back to in-person classes on campus, Student Body President Kaelan Reedy sees the now-completed Memorial Union as the symbol of a new era at UND.

“This really feels like a rebirth of campus,” Reedy said. “The Union is something that UND’s students have truly missed over the past two years – that place to meet, hang out and enjoy activities.

“I think this is going to usher in an era of student unity and student enjoyment as our campus continues to transform.”

Student leaders are impressed by the way in which the Memorial Union project responded to the wants and needs of UND’s student body. One of the most obvious reflections is in the food court, where national chains such as Panda Express, Chick-fil-A and Starbucks soon will be fully available. UND Dining Services also developed new, unique offerings via 1883 Grill and University Ave. Pizza. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

What students want

In late 2018, UND students voted to increase their student fees to build the new Memorial Union. Today, the building’s design and layout effectively mirror what students wanted to see out of the project, said Reedy and Student Body Vice President Dawson Dutchak.

The two highlighted an increase in meeting and lounge spaces available throughout the building, including rooms that can be reserved by way of the Memorial Union’s website. Soon, all of those rooms will be equipped with plug-and-play technology for on-site and remote collaboration.

Poor lighting in the old building was the source of many complaints; today, natural light pours into the new building, thanks in part to three glass towers, a three-story atrium and other extensive uses of energy-efficient glass, Reedy remarked.

As for dining, students wanted nationally recognized eateries in the campus hub. Restaurants such as Chick-fil-A, Panda Express and Starbucks are the result, making their mark on the first floor, just off of the main entrance. UND Dining Services also launched its own unique offerings through 1883 Grill and University Ave. Pizza, alongside Dakota Deli and the Express Convenience Store that previous Union-goers recognize.

To provide a seamless event-planning experience for customers, University Catering is co-located with the Memorial Union’s Administrative Office.

With Starbucks and the Express Convenience Store opening sometime in September, students are encouraged to subscribe to the Campus Renewal & Construction blog for up-to-date information.

“Also, Student Government and Student Involvement are right by the front entrance,” Dutchak added. “People are going to know where we are right away, and I think that’s going to help us reach students more effectively and have more students’ voices heard.”

Dutchak said that seeing the culmination of the effort, stretching back as far as 2015, is inspiring their administration to consider goals that will outlast their own time at the helm of UND’s student body.

A longtime fan of Panda Express, Reedy is delighted to see the chain in Grand Forks, let alone on campus. Still, he’s able to ignore a growling stomach to reflect upon the lasting impact that multiple administrations and graduating classes have had on the project.

“We as a student government needed to be involved in every step if we were to have a successful Union that had everything students wanted,” Reedy said. “As a result, virtually everything existing now was done with students in mind. It has been a rewarding process to see all of the work that students have put into the Union, and we can really thrive in this new center of activity.”

From the Alma Mater to the commemoration of the first graduating class to the UND motto (shown here), the new Memorial Union leaves visitors with a solid sense of identity and school pride. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

All UND

Everybody speaking to UND Today for this story expressed special excitement about the sense of identity found throughout the building – starting with the large “UND” lettering high above the main entryway.

Once inside, Kelly greens and blacks stand out against a complimentary neutral palette. The alma mater is one of the first things visitors will see, as it is etched above the fireplace in a solid piece of granite.

Branding work done by the Division of Marketing & Communications includes a showcase of the University’s motto, “Lux et Lex.” An installation commemorating UND’s first graduating class sheds light on the school’s colors of green and pink. Threads of UND’s history, location and unique features are everywhere, Gerhardt observed.

“It’s one of my favorite things about this place,” Gerhardt said. “It’s all UND, but not just school colors and mascots. It’s a sense of identity that I think will really excite future students and people who come to this University.”

Cheryl Grew-Gillen, director of the Memorial Union, said that as people walk in, there won’t be any doubt as to where they are.

“You walk in, and you can kind of let it unfold all the way to the Second Avenue promenade,” she said of the spirited aesthetic.

Open gathering spaces surrounded by more private meeting options are arrangements that define the layout of the Memorial Union. The co-location of departments on each floor will lead to new efficiencies, synergies and collaborations, the building’s staff members say. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Adaptable spaces to meet students’ needs

The way in which the look and feel of the Memorial Union “unfolds” was considered when Grew-Gillen and her team helped design department spaces throughout the building. Grew-Gillen used One-Stop Student Services and Career Services as examples, the two offices sharing a large suite on the third floor.

As people walk in, they’ll see an open lounge and work area that’s adaptable to a variety of small and large group settings, complemented by varied furniture arrangements, Grew-Gillen said. TV monitors are available around the perimeter of the suite, and a screen can drop down for use with a projector.

Interview rooms on the perimeter of the suite also offer monitors and technology for meetings that will be useful for both of the co-located departments. Another, larger north tower meeting room is adjacent to those rooms. The office spaces are also built in an open workspace style, enabling staff to meet with students and other visitors one-on-one.

The U-Card office, where students, faculty and staff can have their IDs created, is situated immediately to the right of the third-floor suite.

Overall, Grew-Gillen envisions a highly flexible layout where neighboring departments can use more than one type of space. She noted that the second floor has a similar co-located environment that hosts Student Diversity & Inclusion, the Pride Center and the International Center, making for a sprawling, adaptable middle space with plenty of room to meet openly or privately.

“While this building isn’t significantly larger than the old Memorial Union in terms of square footage, it is intentionally designed to have functions and spaces co-located, adjacent to each other,” Grew-Gillen said. “Our efficiencies are so much greater in this building, and we’re hoping to create synergies between these campus services.”

Another example, on the lower level, is the Social Stair leading directly to what’s regarded to as a “games area,” which includes a TV lounge with cubbies for gaming consoles and other interactive media. The floor has a layout that can be adapted to large screenings for, say, a potential hockey championship, or to set up a sound system and lighting for an open mic night or small band.

Matt Sebby, associate director for the Memorial Union, said the team did as much as they could to future-proof the designs – allowing for further developments depending on how the spaces are used.

“We as a team spent a lot of time and effort trying to plan for how students will likely use the building, all the while knowing that as soon as students walk in the building, they’re not going to listen to our plan,” Sebby said, smiling. “They’re going to do things that are totally unique and special to our student body, and I’m incredibly eager to see that.

“So we’re looking at the Memorial Union in a way that’s asking ‘What’s next? How do we continue to do more and better for our students?’ That’s what we’re all excited about.”