This is who we are. This is how we got here. This is what we do. For almost 150 years, the grounds of the University of Illinois, the halls and buildings and dorms, the tens of thousands of people with their books and pens and calculators, have made these statements self-evident: look around, the place speaks for itself. But starting in 2017, in time for the University’s sesquicentennial, the school will perform an act of self-definition. After a $4 million repurposing of sections of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, a new Welcome Center will open. Far more than an orientation post for perplexed arrivals, the ambitious Welcome Center is intended to fulfill multiple purposes. Part map, part decoder, part mission statement, part overture, part embrace, the multimedia, interactive Welcome Center aims to do nothing less than to explain the University by expressing the experience of the entire Illini community, from the 60 or so farmers’ sons who were the first students, to the 40,000 students of the electric, pulsating, purposeful present—and in doing so, to hold open a warm, hospitable door for newcomers seeking to add their voices to the experience.
The idea for the Welcome Center germinated during a conversation between Joe Rank, ’69 MEDIA, MS ’73 MEDIA, an Urbana native who now serves as the University of Illinois Alumni Association senior advisor and historian, and Stephen Van Arsdell ’72 BUS, MAS ’73, vice chair for the UI Alumni Association Board of Directors. Observing with admiration the success that schools such as Notre Dame and Texas A&M enjoyed in developing a sense of pride and tradition that they shared with alumni, students and a greater university community, the men wondered if a greater sense of pride and tradition could be fostered at Illinois. “I didn’t want us to be a University of Notre Dame,’’ Rank says, “but I felt we could do a better job in promoting an appreciation of the transformative nature of the UI experience. As our fellow alumnus Roger Ebert, ’64 MEDIA, once said, ‘The University of Illinois is where so many of us discovered who we were to be.’ Steve and I wanted to illuminate the culture, traditions and academic experiences that informed that process.”
To help with their efforts, Van Arsdell and Rank recruited a couple dozen alumni and retired faculty to form the Alumni Association History and Traditions Committee. The group agreed with Van Arsdell and Rank. “There was no place on campus that could tell you anything about the culture, history and traditions that alumni, students and faculty share,” Rank says. Soon there emerged the idea of creating such a place that could also serve as a visitors’ center. The fit seemed natural: the place that would serve as a gateway to the institution would also be the place that expressed the culture of the institution, and introduced its history and traditions.
Other schools had developed such facilities, and Van Arsdell and Rank studied their approaches. The Ford Alumni Center at University of Oregon in Eugene came closest to what the UI Alumni Association envisioned, and Rank and Van Arsdell flew to Eugene to see it for themselves. “The level of interactivity was amazing,” Van Arsdell says. “Multiple kiosks were rich with programming, allowing users to really drill down into great detail.”
The Perfect Site
As the idea of the Welcome Center took shape, a perfect candidate to house the center emerged: the three-story Alice Campbell Alumni Center, which was completed in 2006. Easily accessible on South Lincoln Avenue, directly off Interstate 74, the ACAC stands near other prominent UI facilities, including Spurlock Museum, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and, most importantly, the Office of Admissions and Records building, through which 30,000 visitors pass annually. “We came to regard the Welcome Center as the logical completion of the ACAC rather than a re-purposing of it because we didn’t have the vision then that we do now,” Rank explains. A planning team hired RhodesWorks, a Champaign-based design firm that had developed prominent exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution and the College Football Hall of Fame. “The philosophy behind the exhibits we develop,’’ says Skip Rhodes, the firm’s principal and creative director, “is that you have to sing to the heart before you speak to the mind.”
The most unique element of the Welcome Center—the way it sings to the heart—is situated in its point of view. “Usually the information here would be presented from the vantage point of administration,’’ Rank says. “At such centers, you’ll likely receive information about a school’s organizational structure, its various avenues of study and so forth. Here, we want to tell the University’s story from the students’ point of view—their experiences, memories and traditions.
“Faculty members come and go, administrators come and go,” he adds. “It’s the alumni and future alumni who are permanent stakeholders of an institution. We want to tell the University story from their perspective.”
The reconfiguration of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center is divided into three phases, with Phase One focusing on the building’s first level and build-out of spaces for the Welcome Gallery and Café, Student Life Gallery, Memory Space and Story Booth.
Together, the Welcome and Student Life Galleries will house 14 Discovery Boxes that combine artifacts, photographs and an interactive video display, which enables a visitor to obtain more detailed information by touching the screen. Each 10-foot-high by 5-foot-wide, wood-framed Discovery Box will focus on a different element of student life and University history.
One box, for example, will ask “Who Are the Illini?” and follow the growth of the student body from the several dozen farm boys who came to the Land Grant school that was established in the aftermath of the Civil War, to the hungry, in-a-hurry students who entered the school following World War I and II, to the eager international students who make up almost a quarter of today’s enrollment. Exhibit concepts include: “Where Do Students Come From,” “Who Goes Here?” and “Illini Style”— the latter of which allows visitors to view how student fashions have evolved over the decades.
Other themes slated for Discovery Boxes are:
- “Seekers Among the Stacks”
- “What Will I Study?”
- “What do Students Need to Live Here?”
- “The Global Campus”
- “Serving in Times of War and Peace”
Meanwhile, the Student Life Gallery will highlight such topics as recreation, traditions, student activities and organizations, campus eateries and hangouts, and sports. “We’re going to talk about sports from the student’s perspective, from the fan’s perspective,” Rank says. “We know that you can’t talk Illini athletics without talking about somebody like Red Grange, but we want to focus on the experience of going to the games and intramurals.’’
Hopefully, visitors will emerge knowing that the orange-and-blue-face-painted undergrad cheering at Memorial Stadium in 2017 has a lot in common with his raccoon-coated great-grandfather cheering at Memorial Stadium in 1924, and that the student engineers doing cutting-edge research now are relying on the discoveries that
student engineers doing cutting-edge research made in 1954. “What connects all of us is the experience of being a student,” Rank says. “Most of us came here at 17 or 18, half-formed, and we left as young men and women with ideas and plans. That transformation is the same for all of us, although each of us undertakes it in different circumstances—dramatically different, sometimes.”
Destined to become the Welcome Center’s most eye-catching feature is the facility’s centerpiece, a kinetic mobile designed by RhodesWorks. The mobile will consist of copies of diplomas contributed by alumni—the donated sheepskins will be photocopied and coated in aluminum—and then randomly strung onto a series of stainless-steel threads that will run the full height of the Center’s 55-foot height. Buoyed and buffeted by air currents from below, and sparkling with lights shining from above, the diplomas (360 in total) will flutter up and down the atrium, sparkling with light.
To populate the mobile, UI Alumni Association is inviting alumni to scan and submit copies of their diplomas, which will be rendered in aluminum. To submit a copy of your diploma, visit http://illinoisalumni.org/welcome-center-story/.
Far from a static museum, the Welcome Center will be a place that will undergo constant refreshment and renewal. In the Memory Space, visiting alumni will not only have the opportunity to hear oral histories recorded by their peers, but will be able to visit an on-site Story Booth and record their own Illini recollections.
Programming and exhibits will be updated, rotated and even replaced to accommodate artifacts and virtual reality experiences, or whatever people of the future will have and be willing to donate. “The archives contain a wealth of material, particularly from the 1890s through the 1920s, but, like all collections, we also have holes,” says Ellen Swain, MS ’95 LIS, UI archivist for student life and culture. She says the 1970s to present day aren’t as well represented as previous eras. “We also have gaps in regards to diversity, such as the African American experience,” she says. “We’d like to collect more personal accounts pertaining to that.”
“For some, the Welcome Center will serve as a destination, a place to spend a half-hour or 45 minutes poring over exhibits,” says Rank. “For others, it will serve as a point of departure, with staff providing the resources needed to find one’s way around campus.”
For instance, the Welcome Center Café will offer food and drink to anyone needing to refuel, and house the Trailhead Interactive Campus Map, which will allow the user to create a customizable, downloadable map with directions to specific places he or she wants to go. Other features will include information about campus buildings—their designs, floor plans and histories.
Construction is scheduled to commence in Summer 2016, and the Welcome Center—“a space full of energy that promotes community,’’ as designer Skip Rhodes describes it—will open in 2017. Afterward, Phases Two and Three of the development, covering the conversion of the building’s second and third floors, will be completed. For now, though, Rank’s eyes are fixed firmly on 2017.
“If, one day, someone asks a UI Alumni Association member, ‘What did you do for the University’s sesquicentennial?’” he will say, “we can point to the Alice Campbell Alumni Center and say, ‘We created the Welcome Center.’”
Adds Van Arsdell, “Our hope is it will come to be regarded as a gift from today’s alumni to alumni of the future.”
To learn more about the inspiration behind the Welcome Center, view construction renderings and learn how you can be a part of this exciting initiative, visit the University of Illinois Welcome Center homepage.