The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.
– Herbert Spencer
Volume 76 | Issue 5
September 2008

Union Spotlight: LaFortune Student Center at the University of Notre Dame

University of Notre Dame
Four-year, private, religious-affiliated
Full-time enrollment: 8,229 undergraduate
Location: South Bend, Ind.

LaFortune Student Center
Director: Ryan Willerton
Size: 83,000 sq. ft.
Floors: 4
Year built: 1883
Annual budget: $1.2 million
Student staff: 35 (part-time)
Nonstudent staff: 29 (full-time); 5 (part-time)
Website: http://lafortune.nd.edu

Joseph A. LaFortune was a University of Notre Dame student in the 1920s, and by the mid-1900s he’d become a legend in the oil industry. It was LaFortune’s financial support that enabled an old science building on campus to be converted into the college union that would bear his name in 1953. In the 1980s, LaFortune’s family also donated money for the facility’s expansion.

In 2004, a renovation system was initiated so that each year, a designated area of the building receives an aesthetic renovation.

“In four years, over 60 percent of the facility has undergone some type of renewal,” said Ryan Willerton, director of student activities. “Significant renovations in the last three years include the conversion of a laundry room into a 24-hour study lounge, renovation of the Main Lounge, and a series of meeting room renovations, including in-room technological upgrades.”

As the building changed, so did the structure of the student activities operation.

“Twenty-five years ago, student activities consisted of a director, an assistant director, and a secretary,” Willerton said. “Today, the department consists of four distinct operations (facilities management, programming/student leadership, student media, and Legends nightclub/restaurant), employing 14 administrators, eight office support staff, 12 custodians, and a maintenance worker.”

Unique features
At Notre Dame, 85 percent of students live on campus, residing in one of 28 residence halls, all of which have their own chapel. With these accommodations, the LaFortune Student Center isn’t seen as a traditional living room; rather, Willerton finds it to be more of a village well.

“It is a place where everyoneÑstudent, faculty, and staff gathers at some point throughout the day to grab a bite to eat, meet with others, find out about what’s going on around campus, attend events, and relax,” he said.

The LaFortune Student Center offers a wide variety of options to students: five food outlets, including Burger King and Starbucks; FedEx Kinko’s, a credit union, a travel agency, a hair stylist, a barber, a flower shop, and an advertising agency as well as plenty of meeting space and a ballroom.

Students’ role
According to Willerton, student employees play a critical role in the daily operations of the LaFortune Student Center.

“Since our building operates 24 hours per day, over the course of the week, over half of our hours of operation are managed by students,” Willerton said.

Positions held by student employees include building managers, information desk attendants, event assistants, cake service attendants, and student shop assistant. In addition to assisting with the operations, students also partake in the offerings of the union. Over the years, different areas of the building have become popular spaces for certain activities.

“The West Lounge in the basement is the most popular space for students to hang out late at night for socializing,” Willerton said. “The lounge, which is open 24 hours, is typically packed on weekend nights between 1–4 a.m.”

For studying, students tend to gather in the East Lounge that offers a 24-hour computer cluster. And as always, the Main Lounge offers plenty of entertainment with plasma screen televisions and lounge furniture.

During football season, weekend programming features preparations for the Fighting Irish home games.

“On Friday afternoon, the steps of the Student Center provide the ideal vantage point to watch the band march by the golden dome. After the pep rally on Friday night, the Student Center becomes a central hang-out for family and friends who are in town to experience a football weekend,” Willerton said.

On game day, those without tickets gather in the LaFortune Student Center to watch the game. However, football season isn’t the only time sports fans hit the union to watch the big game.

“Although cable television was first introduced in residence hall rooms in the 2006, LaFortune remains a popular destination for watching varsity sporting events,” Willerton said. “During the summer months, the student center becomes the unofficial home to international soccer tournament watchers, as the Main Lounge gets packed by a number of primarily international students, faculty, and staff.”

Outside of sports, an AcoustiCafe is offered on most Thursday nights; sponsored by the Union Board, the event draws hundreds to watch friends perform music, comedy, and poetry.

And at the beginning of each academic year, the Best of LaFortune open house features free food, prizes, entertainment, and a game show offering thousands of dollars in prizes. According to Willerton, over 1,500 studnets attend this event each year.