Elbert Bennett had waited five years for the University of Arkansas’ groundbreaking ceremony at Pine Bluff’s Student Engagement Center, and a T-shirt he wore to Friday’s ceremony was a throwback to five years ago when students ” Yes” to a said fee increase to achieve this.
It read, “Vote Yes to the Union,” with a tick in the shape of a “V.” At the time, students were asked to vote for an increase of $10 per credit hour to pay for the new student center, a move later approved by the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees.
“I could not sleep [Thursday] night,” said Bennett, UAPB vice chancellor for student affairs. “To be able to help the students realize such a meaningful project, we don’t have to take a backseat or say that other institutions’ facilities are on a different level than ours , we can compete with any school in our conference, any school in the state of Arkansas.”
Before campus leaders and other supporters headed out for the dirt turn on an overcast, blustery Friday morning, the morning ceremony began at the STEM Conference Center, the same location where the UA Board of Directors viewed renderings of the proposed center and improvements to the LA Davis Sr Student Union during a regular session in November 2021. The Board of Directors approved a budget increase for the 62,000-square-foot Student Engagement Center from $23 million to $33 million at its meeting last month in Monticello. The new center is partially funded by a grant from the US Department of Education, Office of Post-Secondary Education, Title III Part A Strengthening Institutions, and Title III Part B Historically Black Colleges and Universities Programs. Completion of the building is planned for autumn 2024 to spring 2025.
“…Today is a great day in the life and history of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the town of Pine Bluff,” said UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander. “It’s time… for groundbreaking.”
Manoja Reddy, a PhD student in health and physical education from India, said the new center will provide a place for international students to socialize. Reddy is President of the International Student Association of the UAPB.
“We’re from a different place, and if we have a building like that, we can meet up with other students here,” Reddy said. “People come from so many different countries and traditions. This will surely be a great place to share with everyone.”
The construction of the facility, Alexander said, is a major step forward in advancing the university’s campus master plan, which aims to improve campus buildings to help the UAPB compete for students and give them equal status to train with peer institutions.
“The groundbreaking for the Student Engagement Center represents our largest, most momentous and most visionary construction project in recent history,” said Alexander. “Not only is it an important addition to the UAPB, but the center is a great asset to the city, county, southeastern Arkansas and the state as a whole. Upon completion, it will continue to advance the student life and learning experience of UAPB into the 21st century, expanding our student development space to make it more comparable to that of other baccalaureate universities, across the state and in HBCU [historically Black colleges/universities] sector or higher education.”
In addition to student engagement, the new center will serve as a central hub for on-campus dining, gathering and socializing activities, as well as health and wellness, student success and career services. A resource office for graduate and professional schools and a multi-purpose events center with a theater-style stage and seating will also be installed.
Alexander said the new theater will double the seating capacity of the UAPB’s largest auditorium.
Plans for the student union include a new bookstore, printing shop, post office, and limited student meeting space.
AMR Architects and CDI Contractors were chosen to work on the project.
“We’ve stepped it up for our students, and our students have no shame,” Bennett said. “This is UAPB.”