By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Justine Johnson loves living in the fraternity and sorority housing on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus.
She moved into University Residence South as soon as she could after joining Alpha Phi as a freshman in fall 2018.
“Living in the sorority house has been a highlight of my time in Alpha Phi. Not only have I been able to live with other members of my class, but I’ve also lived with the classes above and below me. As a result, I have made strong connections within my chapter and continue to do so,” said Johnson, who currently serves as the sorority’s president.
The junior from Holdrege says her time in the Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) residence hall “changed my college experience for the better.”
And it’s about to get even better for current and future UNK students.
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved a project Friday that replaces and relocates the fraternity and sorority residence halls at UNK, providing a much-needed upgrade for these organizations while creating another affordable and attractive housing option that meets the demands of today’s students.
UNK Student Body President Max Beal, a senior from Kenesaw, called the $26.65 million plan “an investment in one of the things that makes our campus so special, successful and unique.”
“Fraternity and Sorority Life has been and will continue to be a major draw for our campus,” he said. “One in every five incoming freshmen joins a fraternity or sorority, and our members volunteer for more than 25,000 community service hours annually and raise tens of thousands of dollars for charity. UNK’s fraternities and sororities are vital for the future of our recruitment, retention and morale.”
The approved plan replaces the current fraternity and sorority housing – University Residence North (URN) and University Residence South (URS) – through a combination of new construction and a renovation of Martin Hall, a 39,700-square-foot residence hall last occupied in 2014.
A three-story, 39,000-square-foot residence hall will be built just north of Martin Hall, featuring chapter lounges on the first floor and housing pods on the second and third floors. It’s designed for larger chapters with more members living on campus.
Martin Hall will have a similar layout, with the addition of shared chapter rooms in the basement and a community “great room”/clubhouse space on the main floor that encourages interaction among the different organizations. By renovating Martin Hall, UNK is able to utilize an existing resource and preserve some of the building’s historic elements while adding new amenities and upgrades.
Construction is expected to begin this summer with a projected completion date of late 2022 or early 2023.
The project provides the flexibility needed to accommodate both large and smaller FSL chapters. With up to 165 beds in the new building and 80 in Martin Hall, there’s enough living space and chapter room availability for all 12 UNK fraternities and sororities.
That’s a major draw for UNK senior Gracie Lopez of Hastings, the current finance chair and former president of Sigma Lambda Gamma, one of three FSL chapters that don’t have dedicated housing and meeting rooms on campus.
“A lot of our recruitment events are held wherever we can find a room that’s available,” Lopez said.
In addition to providing a space for meetings and events, she believes the FSL project can boost the sorority’s participation numbers by allowing more members to live together and creating a stronger sense of unity.
“Having a specific place of our own will help us a lot,” Lopez said.
The new FSL residence halls will be located just east of the Nebraskan Student Union, putting some of UNK’s most active students directly next to a hub of social activity on campus. It also gives them easy access to dining options inside the union.
Johnson said this location “sparked excitement” within the FSL community.
“By adding these modern residence halls, we hope to see our engagement and student interest rise because these buildings will be some of the first things future Lopers see on their campus visit,” she said. “Moving the FSL housing closer to the union and other residence halls will also allow members to integrate more with the rest of campus and not seem so separated. This project will benefit all FSL members and UNK as a whole.”
Brady Deprez, a senior from Omaha, sees the same advantages.
“Having prime real estate will attract more students to Fraternity and Sorority Life and persuade them to live on campus,” he said.
A member of Delta Tau Delta, Deprez is in his fourth semester living in URS, where the fraternity shares space with another chapter. He called the FSL project “an important investment for UNK.”
“Fraternity and Sorority Life continuously produces outstanding leaders and strong academic performers, so investing in our community benefits the future of UNK,” he said.
The 700-plus fraternity and sorority members at UNK finished the spring 2020 semester with an average GPA of 3.32 and they hold numerous leadership roles on campus, including student body president and vice president, three of four positions on the student government executive cabinet and a majority of the Student Senate seats. Compared to the overall student population, FSL members are more likely to finish their degree at UNK and support the university as alumni.
“A thriving FSL community makes for a thriving campus,” said Beal, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon who lived in FSL housing as a sophomore and junior.
Beal said joining a fraternity is “undoubtedly the best decision I’ve made in college.”
But it’s certainly not the best housing on campus.
URN and URS are 29- and 30-year-old buildings with significant mechanical infrastructure issues and the highest annual maintenance and operating costs among UNK’s residence halls.
They were constructed in the early 1990s as a temporary and quick solution to issues within the FSL community, which was moved onto campus to provide a safe, education-centered environment for members. The wood-frame buildings had a life expectancy of 20 years, and it would cost an estimated $37 million to make the repairs and improvements needed to keep them in use. Instead, both buildings will be razed after the new housing is ready.
“These new FSL residence halls will be highly attractive for both prospective and current students looking to get the most out of their college experiences,” Beal said. “If I wasn’t graduating this year, I would choose to live there in a heartbeat.”
The $26.65 million replacement project will be funded with $10 million in facilities reserves and $16.65 million from an internal lending program. By eliminating Louie’s Diner, a food court in URS, the university expects to save $250,000 to $350,000 in yearly food services expenses. Additional savings will be realized by sharing residence hall staff with nearby campus housing.