Lobbying for a Union Project

Deferred maintenance, a need to centralize and modernize services, and marketplace competition are challenges a campus usually faces prior to renovating an existing union or building a new one. Students often recognize and suffer from the inadequacies, and they are also the key to lobbying for and motivating constituencies toward funding a project that can be years in the making. 

Georgia Institute of Technology plans on finishing a $100 million campus center project in 2022 with the completion of a renovated student center, and half of that cost will be paid by new student fees. The process was started by students over a decade ago, in 2005, with publication of a student government-commissioned white paper outlining the critical need for expansion. Two student government resolutions in support of the project followed, and in 2012 a student center expansion committee was formed to create student-centered focus groups and conduct surveys for the purpose of collecting and disseminating student opinions on the project. 

“It really helps when students are hearing about the needs from other students,” said student center senior director Lindsay Bryant, Ed.D.  

By 2013, student government leaders and the expansion committee had conducted outreach to other student organizations, a peer review of the needs assessments had occurred, and a finalizing student government resolution set in motion semester-long visioning exercises facilitated by architects. Most importantly, the student government action set the stage for a student fee vote in 2016 supported up front by a marketing campaign, campus-wide faculty and staff involvement, and creation of another team from within the existing student center. 

Working without any formal architectural designs, supporters used a Lego building block theme that included videos, Lego-centric programming, and passing out Legos to students to drive interest. Supportive faculty and professional staff were engaged as “champions” to assist with networking, tabling, and other outreach efforts. Behind-the-scenes tours were offered regularly to give the campus community the opportunity to see firsthand the needs of the existing facility. 

“We knew what the cost would be, and we knew what the time range would be if the vote passed,” Bryant said. “What was hard was we did not know what it was going to look like at this point.” 

A marketing campaign pegged on a theme of “re(in)novation,” rather than the traditional renovation terminology occurred over six weeks between January and March 2016, as a lead-up to a March 9-16 student vote. Bryant said she had hoped for 5,000 students to vote and that estimate was on target: 3,330 voted in favor of and 1,695 voted against the $85 per semester fee that will only be implemented when the new facilities open. 

Successful renovations at union spaces at Marietta College and Kansas State University were also initiated by student government leaders and then marketed by student-led communications and branding teams. At Kansas State, student leaders chose students with marketing majors to create a promotional campaign that in the end led to a successful referendum supporting a $32 million renovation completed last year. At Marietta, a student-led, faculty-advised communications and consulting firm called Fifth Street Consulting gathered feedback, sought buy-in, and ultimately made recommendations to administration officials following surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students. That work gave their student programming space, The Gathering Place, a new urban sports bar-feel where large concerts are held, students hang out, and a new esports team exists. 

As the University of Nevada–Las Vegas student union embarks on an expansion campaign, executive director Jon Tucker is enlisting a cadre of paid “expansion student ambassadors” to conduct outreach through tabling, one-on-one contacts, and group discussions before an anticipated student referendum vote later this year. 

“I liked the idea of ‘influencers’ and students who engage other students on campus about the project. Since students are often the right people to engage their peers, it seemed like a natural fit,” Tucker said. “Students can apply to the position with no direct student employment experience; they just need to have enthusiasm about the union, its potential direction, and be willing to learn about the expansion prospects.” 

Training will be ongoing for the ambassadors as the project’s narratives change, but one focal point will be motivating students to support the upcoming vote, he added. 

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