University Union Center, South Dakota State University

Quick Facts

Four-year, public Full-Time Enrollment: 12,527
Location: Brookings, South Dakota

Year Built: 1971
Size: 168,553 sq. ft.
Floors: 3
Annual Operating
Budget: $2 million
Director: Senior Director Jennifer Novotny
Student Staff: 60–80
Nonstudent Staff: 28 full-time, one part-time

With a Hobo Gallery, a 1912 working Model T Ford called the Bummobile, and a bronze, larger than life-size couple known as Weary Wil and Dirty Lil just outside overlooking the grounds, South Dakota State’s University Union Center has more than a little flair.

Built in 1974 and designed for a student population of 5,000, the union has required three renovations since 2005 to accommodate what is now a full-time enrollment of more than 12,000. A 2005 renovation added a new lounge and space for dining, student organizations, and meetings. Four years later, two retail food sites were added, along with one of the must-see attractions of the union, a large glass encasement that protects the Bummobile, that Model T Ford owned by the Students’ Association and driven an annual homecoming ritual known as the Hobo Day parade.

“That space was constructed with a unique air exchange and exhaust system for the vehicle and is adjacent to a large enough exit for the vehicle to drive out of the room,” said Jennifer Novotny, the union’s senior director. “It’s one of the most unique features in the building as it commemorates campus history and tradition.”

South Dakota State’s University Union CenterThe Bummobile has been driven in all but one Hobo Day parade since 1939 and in that standalone year it was pushed. Located in the union’s Campanile Room, it’s part of collection of memorabilia collectively known as the Hobo Gallery. “Over 100 years old, the tradition of the Hobo Gallery binds alumni spanning generations and current students with the foundation of fun and campus camaraderie. Inside is a wealth of treasured memories displayed in photos, artwork, and creative signature student moments,” Novotny said.

Like the Bummobile, the statues of Weary Wil and Dirty Lil nearby the union grounds are also synonymous with Hobo Day. Real life versions of both characters appear throughout Hobo Week and are SDSU alumni who were active as students on campus. Their identities remain a secret until halftime of the homecoming football game.

South Dakota State’s University Union CenterThe Campanile Room also serves as a space for meetings and receptions, and the union has seven retail food providers, including Weary Wil’s Sports Grille. Both the student radio station and newspaper offices are housed in the union, as well as the Office of Multicultural Affairs, disability services, card services, a bookstore, copy and fax services, a laptop check-out program, an art collection, and several other meeting rooms. A 2013 renovation added three retail food stores, more dining space, and redeveloped the student activities space.

The most distinctive characteristic of the union, Novotny believes, is the team that keeps everything running smoothly.

“The hallmark of our union is the exceptional staff committed to meaningful interaction with those we serve,” she said. “It is a regular occurrence to hear from customers who use the facility and from students we work with daily that the staff cares about them.” Students manage every service area of the union and lead efforts in training, evaluating, and services.

Students manage the union during the day and after 5 p.m., when most major events occur, the manage all operations.

“We have a strong community of active participants in programming and professional development, and a generally awesome community of people. It isn’t unusual to see staff mingle outside their normal business arena to engage with each other and with student and other professional,” Novotny said. “That is what makes this an exceptional home away from home for many each and every day, and frankly, a remarkable place to come to work.”
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