CULLOWHEE – “Prepare me a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.”
With those words sung by Western Carolina University’s Inspirational Choir, the university community paused Monday, Jan. 12, to celebrate completion of work on a building that provides sanctuary for Western’s increasingly diverse student body. The music resonated through a new two-story glass atrium that served as the architectural centerpiece for the grand opening of a $6.8 million expansion of A.K. Hinds University Center.
The Inspirational Choir is just one of 20 student organizations, ranging from a Native American student group to an adult learners association, that received keys to brand new office space located in the 34,000-square-foot addition that had been under construction since April 2001.
The expansion features a 160-seat multipurpose meeting room, 170-seat auditorium for movies and lectures, student mail center with more than 4,000 mailboxes, 3,500 square feet of retail space, and expanded foot court. Also in the new section are a multicultural center, women’s center, and work space and conference rooms for student groups.
“The University Center is now poised to truly become the hub for student life at Western,” Robert Caruso, vice chancellor for student affairs, said during the Jan. 12 grand opening. “It will now provide us with the opportunity to effectively build upon what the staff has tried to do for years – engage our students in active learning; help them forge educational partnerships with other students, faculty and staff that advance student learning; and assist them in developing coherent values while supporting the university’s efforts to build a supportive, inclusive learning community at Western.”
Evidence of that philosophy of inclusiveness can be found in the fact that Western students played a major role in helping plan and design the new space, Chancellor John W. Bardo said.
“What we see today is the result of the university’s effort to create a tangible living community based upon our students’ ideas for what really will become their living room,” Bardo said. “This facility reflects what our students asked us to put in it. It’s not our idea. It’s their idea of what they wanted their living room to look like.”
Phil Walker, chairman of Western’s board of trustees, told the crowd assembled for the grand opening that he was present at the dedication of the original A.K. Hinds University Center in 1968, when he was president of the freshman class. Walker, who has gone on to a career as a banking executive, said he spent much time in the University Center, both for recreational activities and as part of the Student Government Association.
“When folks ask me why the university keeps providing facilities like this one, I’m proud to reply, ‘Look what it did for me.’ Think about what it will do for the generations of students to come,” Walker said. “Remember, we are preparing the future business, political and community leaders.”
The grand-opening was marked by a ribbon-tying ceremony, instead of the standard ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We want to symbolize the uniting force that the University Center provides to this community,” said Julie Walters-Steele, University Center director. “This signifies the connection between the past and the present; between the older facility and the new facility becoming one facility; between students, faculty and staff; between parents, alumni and visitors; and between the many cultures that are part of the university community.”
Also, as part of the event, university representatives unveiled artwork created by Western Carolina student Joel Queen, a senior art major from Cherokee. Queen’s dual display of traditional Cherokee masks hangs at each end of the new atrium. One set of masks represents traditional methods of craftsmanship and design, while the second set incorporates the same traditional designs and spiritual symbolism with the use of modern tools and materials.
The University Center expansion project, financed through a self-liquidating bond issue funded through student fees, follows a $4 million renovation effort completed in 1997 that modernized the original 62,000-square-foot building, which is named in honor of the late Anthony Keith Hinds, former dean and professor of mathematics at Western.