The story of the Wisconsin Union is one of continuity on a continually changing campus.
“All sorts of things have changed, and yet nothing has changed,” said Shayna Hetzel ’07, MPA’08. Hetzel was a leader at the Union when she was a student, and today she remains an active Union member as an alumna.
Hetzel, along with current Wisconsin Union Directorate member Liam Granlund x’22 and Union director Mark Guthier talked about the organization’s history when they spoke with Sarah Schutt, the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association’s chief alumni officer, during The UW Now Livestream event on May 21.
Guthier, who described the Wisconsin Union’s history from its beginning in 1907 to the present, said that 2020 has been a particularly difficult time. Not only did the coronavirus pandemic close both Memorial Union and Union South when the university went to all online classes, but on May 20, the university announced that the Memorial Union Terrace would be fenced off to encourage physical distancing.
“Unions in general and this union in particular are places where milestone moments are celebrated at the campus,” Guthier said. He noted that this is true for tragedy as well as triumph; during other crises, students would congregate at Memorial Union and Union South to share their sorrow, but the pandemic makes that impossible. “The very thing unions are built for is something we can’t offer the campus.”
Still, he says the Wisconsin Union will continue to fulfill its mission of helping students become university leaders. “From the very beginning,” he said, “the Union has been about paying attention to and advocating for the student voice and student leadership. It really ensures that the Union remains relevant for students.”
For Granlund, the trials of this time have not damaged the true nature of the Wisconsin Union, adding that the organization’s mission continues, even if students aren’t on campus. The Union is “not a place,” he says. “It’s a people.”
The three also answered questions from some of the hundreds of alumni who tuned in on YouTube to watch the event live.
Ultimately, Hetzel said, both the buildings and the Wisconsin Union as an organization connect Badgers to the UW’s long history.
“There’s something incredibly humbling to have played a role in the Union story,” she said.
The UW Now Livestream is itself a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though originally planned as a series of events in cities across the United States, it is instead offered via YouTube and will continue through the spring and early summer. The next event will be June 2.