Toward a more perfect student union

After nine months waiting for a new home, the Leadership and Service Center recently returned to the Russell House — and the return after a displacement by construction work wasn’t just a move back, it was a move up.

Way up.

The newly renovated center is a spectacular space, says director Kelly Wuest, adding that it’s drawing even more students to deepen their Carolina leadership experience.

“It is so inviting,” she says. “Students stop by and ask, ‘what is this place? It looks so cool.’ And that gets a conversation started.”

With a panoramic bay window overlooking Greene Street, Skype-ready gathering spaces, an amphitheater, a “lawn” with mobile desks and chairs that can adapt to any sort of meeting arrangement — and all of it put together in a style befitting the most promising young hires at a company like Facebook or Apple — the center is a feast for the senses.

Because it’s in one of the most heavily trafficked locations on campus, it commands a lot of student attention. And the center’s staff is using that to bring a huge range of opportunities to a wider audience.

The center might well be called the hub of Carolina’s leadership network. Wuest leads a team of leadership coaches that can start a student talking and thinking about the incredibly important learning process that takes place outside classrooms — more than 150 hours a week compared with 15 spent in them.

Whether it’s joining a student organization or volunteering for community service or working while in school or talking with classmates about how they might change something — anything — to make it work better, every student has numerous opportunities to learn and grow as a leader beyond the lecture hall.

The leadership coaches talk them through what they’ve done, what they want to do and what they might not have even known they could do. Connected to just about every leadership office, program and outlet available on campus, the Leadership and Service Center staff lets students know about dozens of pre-planned options available, even as they help their charges piece together what they might develop on their own in their journeys as leaders.

“It’s not just about us putting together programs anymore — not that they’re going away. It’s about students engaging,” Wuest says. “It’s a huge campus with 30,000 students, and here we have a space where they can come in, sit down and feel comfortable. They can plug in and get creative, push some tables together and collaborate, attend a drop-in program like TED Talk Tuesdays, interact with local leaders through Leaders In Residence — and hopefully come in with ideas of their own.

“It really gets back to the roots of what a college union is meant to be. A place where students can be students and that provides serendipitous spaces for them to have these a-ha moments. And we’re there, kind of in the background, ready to help them figure which pathways they want to choose.”

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