Since it first opened in 1967, the University Center, affectionately known as the UC, has served as the heart of student life on the University of Houston campus. Now, with the Phase II completion of the UC Transformation Project on Jan. 21, the UC — re-christened as the Student Center — has opened its shiny new doors to the next generation of Cougars.
The 306,000-square-foot facility includes a renovated Houston Room for large functions, a retail corridor, featuring the student-run Shasta’s Cones & More ice cream shop, five dining options — including Freshii, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A, a renovated and expanded games room, a 450-seat theater, the World Trade Center Monument and Reflection Garden and the newly created Student Center North building, which serves as home to many student organizations and campus resource centers. Inside, there is a special ambience, as busy as a beehive in some areas, as relaxed as a luxury resort in others. Some students wander through the two-level bookstore, checking out texts and admiring the historic Chicano Movement mural, while a handful of others sprawl across the expansive flight of wooden risers that serve as a staircase. Some scramble, late for an organizational meeting, while others kick back in the food court, biding their time till their next class begins or the movie in the nearby theater starts.
“It’s our Student Center, and it’s nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
The grand opening was a powerful moment for people like UH alum Nicole Sopko, who served on the UC Master Planning Committee and as one of two co-chairs for both the UC Referendum and New UC committees. Sopko had been dreaming of this moment since the transformation was first proposed in 2007.
“This project that we started my freshman year is now alive, flourishing and is what the students chose,” Sopko said. “It’s our Student Center, and it’s nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
Student support was paramount to the completion of the $80-million renovation and expansion. From the project’s inception and throughout its progression, students served in leadership roles, providing key feedback to the Transformation Project’s architects, University administrators and other key stakeholders. In 2008, they also voted for an increase in student fees to help pay for the project. According to Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Kowalka, 95 percent of the UC Transformation Project was supported by student fees.
“The name change to the Student Center was actually requested by the students. It symbolizes that this was a student-led and student-funded project,” said Kowalka.
However, the University Center’s student roots run far deeper than its latest incarnation and the Transformation Project that led to it. Students have been playing a pivotal role in the overall progression of the UC since the 1950s.
UH President Walter W. Kemmerer initiated the first action to establish the University Center in 1952. In 1956, the University surveyed the student body, seeking its opinion on what amenities should be included in the new building. Students also participated in focus groups with faculty, administrators, alumni, consultants and architects. Funding for the building’s construction, which began in 1965, also came from student service fees, much as it did for this most recent renovation and expansion.
Not only was the UC originally designed and built for students, it also has been regulated to a large extent by students. The Student Program Board (then known as the University Center Program Council) and the University Center Policy Board helped drive activity and programs at the center and created rules and regulations governing the facility’s use. To this day, these two student leadership groups continue to impact daily operations and policies.
The UC opened on Feb. 13, 1967, with a week of concerts, seminars and exhibitions geared to the student body. At the dedication ceremony in March, then-UH President Philip G. Hoffman said, “The University Center begun in February of 1965 is now complete. Be it dedicated to you.”
From then on, the UC was the central hub of student life on campus, a place of activity and diversion from the daily grind and demands of academia. They gathered at the cafeteria downstairs, called The Cougar Den, to eat and play cards, or at the games room to take a break from studying for finals to play billiards or bowl. Students dressed their best for formal receptions, gatherings and performances in the Houston Room.
Something new was happening at the Arbor every day, whether it was students debating politics and discussing current events, one of UH’s many Greek organizations entertaining audiences with a step routine or the entire campus rallying together to cheer on the football team for its upcoming homecoming game. That link between the UC and student life grew even stronger with the addition of the UC Underground and the UC Satellite in 1973.
Many alumni carry fond memories of their time at the UC, including UH alum Jonas Chin, who was vice president of the Student Government Association when the UC Transformation Project was in its infancy.
“Many of us Cougars have a story or two about the old University Center. In a campus as diverse as we are, the UC was always a place where we all came together to share experiences,” said Chin.
Today, students have an expanded and enhanced facility in which to share their experiences and create new ones, a facility built by students for the entire UH community to enjoy. “It’s an exciting time for our community,” said Chin. “The Student Center is truly a place that Coogs built.”