A new hub for belonging and connection

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“Fight on, fight on for Western,” an enthusiastic crowd chanted as the sounds of the Bronco Marching Band reverberated through the heart of campus, echoing down the Sangren Mall. A grand opening celebration to officially welcome the new WMU Student Center in late August drew hundreds of enthusiastic students, employees and community members and brought a wave of emotion for two of the visionaries behind the space.

Two students in color guard hold large Bronco flags.

The Bronco Guard performed alongside the Bronco Marching Band, staging a flash mob on the Heart after the WMU Student Center dedication ceremony.

“When the marching band started playing outside … I was supposed to get up and speak, and I gulped because I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting really choked up right now, and this is not the time for me to cry,’” remembers Dr. Diane Anderson, vice president for student affairs. “I pulled it together, but I was really touched because I’ve been part of all the conversations over the years of trying to get this thing to happen. So, it just really feels good and brings me so much joy.”

“It was one of the best days of my life,” adds Paul Terzino, student center director. “To see so many students so excited about coming into the building and then having four hours straight of people all over the place enjoying it … was very emotional for me.”

The newest, most innovative student center in the state, the facility’s grand glass facade lets natural light stream in through, illuminating an open concept to encourage connection and interaction. The centrally located gathering stairs, affectionately called the Heart, provide ample space for meeting with friends, hosting events or even impromptu marching band flash mobs, opening the door to new traditions and Bronco bonding.

“I think it will be the living room, the family room, the gathering place,” Anderson says. “I hope that it brings a vibrancy that stays with us, that it is known as the hub and that students will continue to own it as theirs and take care of it with pride, using it as a place to greet new Broncos and welcome them into the fold.” 

While Anderson may have been the original student center visionary, she’s quick to point out the veritable army of students, employees and community members who contributed to making that dream come to life.

“You can’t do something like this by yourself,” she says. “But it does feel good to see it finished. Sometimes people wanted to give up. But I’m glad we were persistent becauseI really think our students deserve a nice student center, and now they have one.”

Decades in the making 

Anderson first arrived on Western’s campus as dean of students in 1994. Excited to jump into her new role, she immediately noticed something was missing.

A crowd of people mingles on the Gathering Stairs.

Anderson walks through a sea of students on the Heart gathering stairs.

“I was so surprised that Western did not have a student center,” she remembers. Student organizations had offices in the basement of Faunce Student Services, which did not feel conducive to engagement. “There was no co-mingling, no energy across organizations. They all had their little private offices. It didn’t feel like a way to create collaboration or the sharing of ideas.” 

Anderson first worked with the director of the Bernhard Center to create the Student Organization Center and give RSOs more space to interact with each other. 

“We were trying to put some things in the Bernhard Center to make it more conducive to that engagement, but it never quite got there because it wasn’t really designed as a student center. It was designed more as a multipurpose facility.”

Unrelenting in her quest for a dedicated hub for student engagement, Anderson wanted Broncos to see student centers on other campuses so they could start thinking about what they might like at Western. She also began searching for someone to add to her team with significant experience in building and renovating similar spaces, so in 2011, she hired Terzino to bring her dream to fruition.

“This is the first student center I really was able to help build from the ground up,” he says. “So one thing we did was start an advisory board to not only give me feedback and help with research but to also start to get ideas from students, because it was a majority student board.”

Terzino also hired his first graduate assistant, Sara Bamrick, BA ‘12, MA ‘14, who worked with him on benchmarking and sifting through data related to other student centers and comparing spaces. 

“I fell in love with data research from doing all the benchmarking,” says Bamrick, who went on to become a coordinator of student center operations at Lynchburg College in Virginia after graduation and now works at Eastern Michigan University.

But the most fun, says Terzino, was traveling with students to get ideas.

Sara Bamrick and Paul Terzino stand on the gathering stairs in the WMU Student Center.

Sara Bamrick, BA '12, MA '14, made a special trip to campus for a tour of the WMU Student Center from her mentor, Paul Terzino.

“We probably saw more than 30 student centers from Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio to Texas and Toronto. We even saw a student center that was combined with a library in North Carolina,” he remembers. “It was fun to take students and see what they liked.”

One of those students was Cameron Smith, BS ‘18, MPA ‘20, who now works as a patient resources and education coordinator at Henry Ford Health in Detroit. He remembers visiting several facilities in Texas and admiring the vast, open seating areas and dedicated spaces for student organizations. 

“I wouldn’t be the leader or the professional I am without the opportunities that were afforded me (at Western), and one of those was getting to go on that trip. Because it shows that they really wanted student input,” Smith says. 

“I just liked how they were really large and inviting for students and had a lot of open space and lounge spaces. And I’ve seen videos and pictures of the new WMU Student Center, and it looks just like what I saw at University of Texas!”

It’s a validation, Smith says, of Western’s emphasis on student engagement. 

“I think Western did a great job, and still does a great job, of giving students the access to speak on what they wanted to see in the building. It really makes me feel good to know that I was able to be part of the team that helped get this building up.”

More than a building

In late September, after hearing the buzz about the dream she’d been part of coming to fruition, Bamrick decided she needed to see it for herself.  For a reunion 10 years in the making, she rearranged her schedule to drive to Kalamazoo and get a tour from her mentor, Terzino.

“Bronco pride pours out of me. I literally took the day off work and drove two and a half hours just because I was so excited to see this space,” Bamrick says. And she was not disappointed, as evidenced by her gasps and ear-to-ear smiles from the minute she walked into the student center.

Sara Bamrick hugs Paul Terzino.

“You have impacted me and how I operate in the world, and now your impact is here forever. People won’t even meet you, but they will meet you through this space,” Bamrick told Terzino.

“I think Western does this student-centered focus so well, and I have so many positive memories that I genuinely wanted to come see it,” she says. “It’s just so beautiful here. There’s a sense of connection and a sense of value added. I want to be in this space; it looks really cool. I’m proud to be an alum from here.”

Bamrick immediately noticed the emphasis on connection, belonging and well-being in the building’s design. 

“There are a lot of concepts here of wellness and feeling like you can make positive memories in this place,” she says. “Here, laughter is so easy. It feels so easy to connect, and the surroundings make it comfortable. There are cozy spots and then when you’re on the (Heart) stairs, you kind of have to be confident because you’re seeing everybody. So it has all these emotional pieces to it. And I think students can lean into it and really build their connections through those.”

The central gathering area is among Terzino’s favorite spots in the student center, as well. 

“I love the Heart, and when you’re in this building when it’s really busy on a Tuesday at two o’clock—all the noise. There’s everybody studying and talking and in little pods of students together,” Terzino says. “From the game room on the lower level to the top of the Heart, it’s such a cool, active, vibrant space that students just like being in. I love when I come to work pretty early, around eight o’clock, and students are already here hanging out. That would have never happened at the Bernhard Center!”

The energy created by this new campus gathering space is palpable, and it’s a testament, says Bamrick, to the care and intention so many people in the Bronco community put into its design and development—especially Terzino.

“You have impacted me and how I operate in the world, and now your impact is here forever. People won’t even meet you, but they will meet you through this space,” Bamrick tells Terzino.

“I hope so; I hope it has a positive impact on everybody, students especially. And I’m so happy that we kept it student focused. It was really about the students,” he says. ■