What Should Berea College’s New Student Union Centre Look Like?

By Ülvi Gitaliyev

The Woods-Penniman Building, which used to house CPO and currently houses Public Safety and Center for International Education (CIE) is visited by many students, staff, and visitors to Berea College daily. Originally built as a women’s gymnasium in 1925, the iconic building will soon thorough a makeover as the first student union centre of Berea College. This is a new and exciting prospect in the history of the college, but what plans are there to transform Woods-Penn and what benefit will Bereans see from it?

Berea College has partnered with Earl Swensson Associates (ESa), an architectural firm based out of Nashville, Tennessee, to help redesign Woods-Penniman. ESa has already worked with the University of Belmont in Tennessee and has designed many buildings for them. You can view their portfolio here. Architects from the company have also hosted multiple events with Student Life on campus, showing prototypes for the building and gathering community opinion.

So far, there are two plans to rebuild Woods-Penniman, both presented by the ESa architects during their events. One plan envisions a thorough transformation of Woods-Penniman, which is shown in the featured image of the article. More meeting spaces, gaming rooms, a welcoming space for visitors and more are part of the first plan. The second plan is more limited in scope and budget. While Woods-Penn will be expanded and include more meeting spaces, much of the original building will still stand. The architects also spoke of the beautiful view of Brushy Fork and making it viewable from the building in both plans. When presented with the two plans, most students expressed preference for the first plan, but no final decisions have been made by either Berea College or the architects and both plans are still subject to change.

Students being introduced to the new student union centre and its concepts, fall 2023

I have asked some members of the Student Vision Team, a taskforce gathering student opinion and meeting with the architects on the student union centre on their thoughts about the project. Here is what they had to say:

I’ve been involved with the Student Vision Team since it started; I’ve enjoyed meeting with the architects and watching this project come to life. This is one of the projects I think administrators at Berea College have worked well to gain student input with surveys, focus groups, and open forums. I’ve seen different models of the floor plans and I can say there is a lot of cool stuff in the works like a café, vending machine area when the café is closed, gaming pods and an arcade room. I’m sad I’ll graduate before I get to see it, and I think it will create a new way for students to foster community with each other which is something the SGA always wishes to see within the student body.

Student Government Association (SGA) President Lily Barnette, 24′

Being the youngest member on the Student Vision Team, I will have the distinct pleasure of seeing the Student Center from start to finish. Words cannot express how excited I am to see this project continue to grow! The Student Center is going to have a café, a wide variety of vending machines, a large prayer room, gaming spaces, and even a slide! It will have something for everyone. As we move forward, we’ll need more student input on how the student center will look. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and help make them a reality!

Office assistant for Student Life Housing, Vanessa Lay 27′

We had four meeting with the architects so far, and they were very positive. We had several workshops with students, and meeting with student centers to gather more information of how to make the project better. To ensure constant improvement, the Student Vision team meets weekly and pull some extra leg work to ensure that the center will be welcoming to all and awesome! Our first step included the definition of allocation of square footage of the building and the overall theme of the place, and that will be presented to the Board of Trustees in their next meeting for approval. Next semester will be focused in defining how these areas will actually look like, focusing on their inclusive, multipurpose, but above all, practicality in improving students experience on campus. Overall, a lot of positive outlooks on the project: it will be 24/7, we will have more food options for students (hopefully partnering with Sodexo for affordability), new study rooms for individuals and/or groups, and also workspace for Registered Student Organizations (RSO)! 

Leadership Coordinator for Campus Life, Matheus Bender, 24′

During the winter break, I have had the opportunity to explore the campus of the University of Vermont (UVM). While their campus and student body is very different from Berea College, there are many things that I think we can learn from their student union centre, The Dudley H. Davis Center. UVM is generally known for its environmentally architecture, and the Davis Center is no exception. According to the UVM website, it is the first student union centre in the United States to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold-level certification. The building has a convenience store that students can purchase food and toiletries, as well as a café and food bank that students can readily take and donate from. The building also houses multiple student organisations, from the ski club to the student government, who has multiple rooms and a lounge, compared to the one glorified storage closest afforded to our SGA, let alone dedicated spaces for clubs. From speaking with students, it seems that the building simultaneously has dedicated spaces for clubs and organisations while also having conference and event rooms that can be used by the student body.

The Dudley H. Davis Center, UVM’s student union centre building

While many students and I will not see Woods-Penniman transformed into a student union centre before our graduation, our experiences and input are just as valuable. The Student Vision Team is still considering student opinion on the project as concepts become concrete plans, there will be more to discuss.

Republished from Berea Torch.