Elbert Bennett waited five years for the day ground would break on the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Student Engagement Center, and a T-shirt he wore to Friday's ceremony was a throwback to the time five years ago when students said "yes" to a fee increase to make it happen.
It read: "Vote Yes to the Union," with a checkmark in the shape of a "V." At the time, students were asked to vote for a $10-per-credit-hour bump to pay for the new student center, a move the University of Arkansas System board of trustees later approved.
"I couldn't sleep [Thursday] night," said Bennett, UAPB's vice chancellor for student affairs. "To be able to help the students deliver on such a momentous project that we don't have to take a backseat or say that other institutions' facilities are at a different level than ours, we can be competitive with any school in our conference, any school in the state of Arkansas."
Before campus leaders and other supporters took to a cloudy, blustery Friday morning for the turn of dirt, the morning's ceremony began inside the STEM Conference Center, the same location where the UA board saw renderings of the proposed center and improvements to the L.A. Davis Sr. Student Union during a regular meeting in November 2021. The board approved a budget increase for the 62,000-square- foot Student Engagement Center from $23 million to $33 million while meeting last month in Monticello. The new center is financially supported in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Post-secondary Education, Title III Part A Strengthening Institutions and Title III Part B Historically Black Colleges and Universities programs. Completion of the building is estimated for fall 2024 to spring 2025.
"... Today is a great day in the life and history of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the city of Pine Bluff," UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander said. "'Tis the season ... for groundbreakings."
Manoja Reddy, a graduate student in health and physical education from India, said the new center will give international students a place to socialize. Reddy is the president of UAPB's International Student Association.
"We come from a different place, and if we have a such a building like this for sure, we can mingle with other students here," Reddy said. "People come from so many different countries and traditions. For sure, this will be a great place to share with everyone."
Construction of the facility is what Alexander called a major step forward on progress of the university's campus masterplan, the goal of which is to improve campus buildings to help UAPB compete for students and educate them on equal footing with "peer institutions."
"The groundbreaking on the Student Engagement Center represents our largest, most consequential, visionary construction project in recent history," Alexander said. "It is not only a major addition for UAPB, but the center is also a great asset for the city, the county, southeast Arkansas and the entire state. When completed, it will continue to propel UAPB's student life and learning experience into the 21st century, increasing our student development space to make it more comparable to that of other baccalaureate-degree granting universities across the state and across the HBCU [historically Black colleges/universities] sector or higher education."
In addition to student engagement, the new center will serve as a central hub to dining, assembling and socializing activities on campus, as well as health and wellness, student success and career services. A Graduate and Professional School Resource Office and multipurpose event center with a stage and theater-style seating will also be installed.
Alexander said the new theater will double the seating capacity of UAPB's largest auditorium.
Plans for the Student Union include a new bookstore, print shop, mailroom and limited student gathering spaces.
AMR Architects and CDI Contractors have been selected to work on the project.
"We have stepped it up for our students, and our students do not have to be ashamed," Bennett said. "This is UAPB."