Thompson Union located on University Avenue. Photo courtesy of Google Images.
By Hannah Keller
The construction of a Student Union at Sewanee has been a concept in the works since early 2018. During an interview on August 6, 2019, Vice-Chancellor McCardell commented that the University “settled on the idea of a distributed commons, which would incorporate the Learning Commons in DuPont; the Health and Wellness Commons, which will open in January; and then a Social Commons, on the site of Thompson Union.” The purpose? “We truly ought to have a center where the campus can gather throughout the day and in between classes,” he said.
But if the University is in such a need for more gathering places, shouldn’t its implementation be a higher priority for Sewanee at large? As of right now, the only true hangout spots for students on campus to gather with their peers as of right now are the DuPont library, McClurg dining hall, and students’ dorm rooms, which is problematic.
“Those spaces aren’t intended to be used for socializing, they serve other purposes; but the solution isn’t to take opportunities away from students,” commented the Student Trustee Malicat Chouyouti (C’20).
“The Student Union could act as a place for organizations to have designated offices, such as Bacchus, so you can go and meet members of different organizations and get to know the other people who are involved in the things you are interested in. This might help people who don’t run in the same circles develop a broader range of relationships with people from all over campus,” Chouyouti said.
Another appealing aspect of the Student Union lies in the opportunity it presents for students to have a space to engage in social activities outside of Sewanee’s party scene. Alcohol and drug abuse are notorious on campuses across the nation. The Student Union could serve as an opportunity for some of the factors that contribute to substance abuse, such as boredom, isolation, and stress relief, to be alleviated by positive alternatives.
For many people, finding ways to connect with other students can be incredibly difficult outside of the party scene. Clubs and organizations appear daunting as an incoming freshman, and making friends in class can be an excruciatingly awkward experience. This is not to say that making relationships by these means are not great. They are! But getting the courage to join a new group of people or take up a new hobby can be hard. Some of us need something more casual than class, but less overwhelming than large parties.
That’s where the Student Union comes in. A central meeting place on campus for students of all ages to have events or just hang out sans alcohol would this process of meeting new people a lot easier for students from all classes. Many students have expressed interest in a wider variety of opportunities to be involved in on campus during weeknights and weekends when partying isn’t the end-goal. A Student Union would be an excellent solution, but the priority of actual implementation of the concept seems low.
While the administration proposes new regulations for the open-party culture at Sewanee, they appear to ignore one crucial aspect of why partying is so extreme in the first place: many students feel like there isn’t much else to do.
Chouyouti commented, “You already see the implementation of stricter rules for drinking and partying. Underclassmen are discouraged by the ‘broken promises’ of what they thought the party scene would be like, as it was in the past.”
Vice-Chancellor McCardell commented during our interview last week, “The University is not out to get the Greeks, but rather, the Greek life communities should not have to supplement the university with the overwhelming majority of social activity that it currently does.”
While the Student Union is by no means a direct response to underage and binge-drinking on campus, it would certainly combat the issue. We need to have a serious conversation about the importance of having opportunities to make friends outside of the partying scene, and the importance of valuing time spent enjoying activities that involve more than just drinking. Student Unions see tremendous success at other universities, particularly because of the versatility such a space introduces.
“It would be a space for students to find out what’s happening on campus, and to streamline activities and events,” Chouyouti concluded. “The Student Union would definitely interest people who were like me and wanted a little more than just monotonous partying and library hangouts to be a part of how they spend their free time.”