Since I transferred to the University of Michigan in the fall of 2018, I didn’t get the chance to appreciate the significance of the Michigan Union on campus life until renovations concluded last month. Students starting their journey at the University during the 20-month renovation period of the Union didn’t know what they were missing, and sadly, I was one of them.
During those 20 months without the Union, Central Campus lacked a heart. While the doors of Pierpont Commons and the Michigan League were still open, they didn’t foster the sense of community that the Union always has. The League provides little space for students to study, meet and socialize in comparison to the Union and is composed chiefly of event and conference space, outside of the basement and Maizie’s. Pierpont serves the North Campus community well, but it didn’t add to what was missing from Central Campus — a large gathering space that existed for students in the heart of campus.
After the renovation, with the block ‘M’ flag waving high above its tower, the Union brings a sense of new life to the campus community. I like to think of the Union as a great equalizer, where students, faculty, staff and alumni can catch up and bask in the pride of our great university. One lap through the Union and I see familiar faces from all aspects of my life at Michigan; we are all united in that space for a common reason. Coworkers, classmates, friends from Greek life and fellow writers at The Daily. To me, the Union represents the crossroads of my social, academic and personal life at Michigan.
Athlete or non-athlete, Greek or non-Greek, a person of any major or of any socioeconomic background congregates at the Union under a common understanding of self-perception: We are the student body of the University of Michigan. Before the ribbon-cutting ceremony this January, there was not a place on this campus where I could interact with the same range of people from my Michigan experience as I now can at the Union.
The Union’s large and stately presence on South State Street fosters a campus community that makes Michigan feel a lot smaller. Its paneled and historic halls make a university with an undergraduate enrollment of over 31,000 feel like a tight-knit community. The renovation brought this storied building into modernity without sacrificing the character or charm of a space steeped in history. Some changes had to be made to meet the needs of students in the 21st century, such as replacing the second floor pool hall with the new IdeaHub. This decision received some push back from alumni. I can recall from my first trip to the Union on its opening day last month that a middle-aged man stood on the front steps yelling at people entering and exiting the Union that this “used to be the best place on campus to shoot pool” and how removing it was a travesty. While this encounter was certainly extreme, I do see the validity in wanting to return to your alma mater and find it the way it was left. However, time waits for no man, and the needs of today are inherently different from the needs of yesterday. This renovation catered to the needs of the modern student, who needs space to congregate, study and eat more than they need space to play pool.
I took on a part-time job this semester, working as a member of the program staff for Conference and Event Services at the Union, helping to set up the different events held daily at the Union. Working at the Union has given me a fond feeling for the space, to say the least, and being able to assist the flow of such an important building to the campus community gives me a lot of pride in how I’m able to give back to the University, a school to which my character is indebted. In the post-renovation period, the sense of community and school pride I have felt has increased ten-fold, solely based on the interactions I have had and that I witness here nearly every day. The heart of Central Campus is back and stronger than ever, and may the Union last another 100 years as we all hail back to Michigan.