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Explainer: How the Student Center was funded

Kaelah Serrano
Columbia’s Student Center, located at 754 S. Wabash Ave., is used as a gathering place for students across majors. The building houses a food court, study and meeting rooms, the fitness center, a tech bar, the Career Center and event spaces.

When President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim steps down on July 1, he will leave his successor to grapple with rising tuition costs, declining enrollment and a $38 million operating deficit. But his legacy also includes a showcase building for students that has become the centerpiece of Columbia’s urban campus. 


The five-story Student Center, which opened in Fall 2019, just before the pandemic hit, was partially funded by a donation from Kim himself. It was also paid for through the sale of real estate and other private donations, according to Lambrini Lukidis, associate vice president of Strategic Communications and External Relations.


The building, located at 754 S. Wabash Ave., houses a food court, study and meeting rooms, the fitness center, a tech bar, the Career Center and event spaces. Many students who crossed the graduation stage this past weekend to get their diplomas wore caps decorated at the Makerspace in the Student Center. 


On Monday, May 20 the Student Center added the Levin Family Lounge, a third-floor gathering space in the Student Center was renamed after the Levin family, who fund four scholarships for Columbia students.

It also has a large event space, which is where Kim was holding a brunch for parents during Family Weekend in Fall 2023 when students led by the part-time faculty union president confronted him over his handling of the growing deficit. This was just days before the historic part-time faculty union strike started.


On Monday, May 20, the college’s Board of Trustees will meet in the Student Center boardroom to vote on whether to accept Kim’s recommendations for how to close the deficit. 


For the past several years, the college’s spending has been more than its revenue, which is what led to the operating deficit. Any spending decisions were obviously part of that, including the construction of the Student Center, although declining enrollment, discounted tuition and the strike also contributed.


By the numbers:


The Chronicle previously reported in 2017 that the $210 million sale of the University Center, which was also partially owned by Depaul and Roosevelt University, contributed most of the funding for the Student Center.  


Even so, the Student Center’s cost, which was $50 million, was a major talking point during the strike. On the picket line, part-time instructors held up signs that called the Student Center a “$50 million pool hall.”  (The Student Center does have a pool table on the 4th floor.)


But the Student Center was the source of contention for the union even before the strike.


Part-time Union President Diana Vallera told WBEZ in 2018 that it was difficult for her to see the center being built because programs were being cut, with diminishing opportunities for instructors to teach.


Vallera declined to answer questions when asked by a Chronicle reporter outside of her classroom.


What students are saying:


For students, the Student Center is a popular gathering spot. Columbia’s buildings are spread out around the South Loop, with no quad like most traditional colleges.


It was conceptualized through “Dream Out Loud” student input sessions.


Jewel Pratt, sophomore graphic design major, said they mainly use the Student Center for the gym and the food court. They also work at the tech bar, located on the first floor, a new addition to the building, which replaced the coffee shop and opened in Fall 2023 as a place for students to get help with the college’s online platforms like Canvas and Office 365.


Isaac Christophe, sophomore graphic design major, said he mainly uses the Student Center as a place to do homework and eat.


Jen Haskins, a senior film and television major, studies at the Student Center and uses the audition space. 


Haskins also works at the Makerspace, located on the second floor of the building, a studio space with large tables, craft supplies, sewing machines and 3D printers where students can go to work on class assignments or personal projects. 


“I toured Columbia in 2019,” Haskin said, when the student center was still pretty new.
“I really loved how everything was set up and just how neat and cool and how it really just applies to all majors. Like you don’t have to be in a certain major to enjoy the Student Center or Makerspace.”


“I remember on my tour them showing us the Makerspace and I just thought that was so cool,” Pratt said. “And [the student center] just looked really cool. It’s like the first thing you see when you google Columbia.” 


Nora Dolin, senior film and television major who works at the Fitness Center said the Student Center was a huge drawing point. 


“Like it’s a really impressive building and it’s also like the one space where I feel like all majors kind of share space,” Dolin said. “But I started going to the gym because I was like okay, well if I’m paying this much tuition I might as well use all the resources that I have available to me. And then I started going to the gym and I loved it.”


Dolin said working and spending time at the gym has led to making a lot of great friends. They also use the rest of the student center for other reasons. “I’ve definitely used some of the meeting rooms. I recently used the Makerspace for the first time in these last couple of weeks I’m gonna try and go down there and like make some buttons and stuff because I think that’s really cool resource that I wish I utilized a lot more while I was here”


People should come to the Student Center more, Pratt said. “I feel like not a lot of people utilize it as much as they should. It’s a really chill space. Just if you want to get out of the house.” 


Resumen en Español: 


Antes de renunciar el primero de Julio, Kwang-Wu Kim, presidente y CEO, contribuye a su legado donando de sus propios fondos, para ayudar el centro de estudiantes. El centro se usa para eventos y los recursos como el espacio para eventos, el café de almuerzo, el gimnasio, el centro de tecnología, etc. Según Lambrini Lukidis, vicepresidente asociado de Comunicaciones Estratégicas y Relaciones Externas, el centro originalmente fue financiado por donaciones de Kim, otras privadas y la venta de bienes raíces.


Resumen en Español por Sofía Oyarzún


Copy edited by Patience Hurston


This story has been updated.

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About the Contributors
Maya Swan-Sullivan
Maya Swan-Sullivan, Former Reporter
mssullivan@columbiachronicle.com   Maya Swan-Sullivan is a senior journalism major, with a minor in creative writing. She covers Columbia classes and Chicago festivals and events. Swan-Sullivan joined the Chronicle in June 2023.   Hometown: Asheville, North Carolina
Kaelah Serrano
Kaelah Serrano, Photojournalist
kserrano@columbiachronicle.com   Kaelah Serrano is a junior photojournalism major. She has covered music festivals, campus art exhibitions and metro parades and protests. Serrano joined the Chronicle in January 2023.   Hometown: Chicago, Illinois