Students call for women's center

CHAMPAIGN – With the help of a table, a microwave and a few books, the entrance to a University of Illinois administration building was transformed temporarily into a women's center on Wednesday.

Male and female students rallied outside the Swanlund Building, home to the offices of several university administrators, to call attention to the need for a place that could house offices, resources and programming about gender issues.

"Women don't have enough space for everything a women's center could give us, including education about rape," said UI student Zach Speckman, who is participating in the FYCARE program, or First Year Campus Acquaintance Rape Education. Wearing black and turquoise T-shirts with the words "Take Up Space," printed on them, he and Sigma Pi fraternity brother Drew Keiser turned out to support the friendly sit-in.

Both said they envision the center as "a safe place for all genders."

The dean of students runs the Office of Women's Programs, currently located in the Student Services Building on John Street, across the street from Swanlund. That office, with two full-time staffers and two graduate assistants, works to essentially improve the lives of women on campus.

But there are limitations to the office, Keiser said. For one thing, it's open until 5 p.m. And the campus should have something that would be open later and could be billed as a safe place for women.

"It's cubicle-land. There's no place for a group to sit, and it's hard to put in a lot of programming," said UI student Elise Ruark.

At the sit-in, students pasted sticky notes to a board with suggestions on what the center could offer students. Ideas include a conference room, kitchen, counseling center, resource room and programs such as relationship counseling.

To formalize their efforts, student organizers recently established the group, Allies for a Women's Center, and they began meeting in different cultural centers to talk about their plans. They started circulating a petition calling for the establishment of a women's center and have collected about 1,000 signatures so far.

Students also have visited the women's center at the University of Illinois at Springfield and plan to visit more this summer.They've been talking to staff at other centers around the Midwest and learned, among other things, many other university women's centers were established in the 1970s and 1980s.

"It's more than time. It's way overdue," Ruark said about a center on the UI campus.

"We're just a little bit behind, but we're going to catch up," said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renee Romano.

About a year ago, university administrators and staffers with the campus cultural centers began meeting to discuss the centers and their futures. A few focus groups and town hall meetings were held this fall. And it was determined a "needs assessment" should be conducted, Romano said.

"We're trying to develop a process, a timeline," she said. In the future, a "visioning retreat" will be held to determine what exactly a women's center on the UI campus could look like.

"We're going to need student input and we're glad you're interested," she told the group of students.

Students said ideally they would like the center to be located on Nevada Street in Urbana, which is home to many other of the university's cultural houses, such as La Casa Cultural Latina and the Native American House.

"I can only hope it (a women's center) comes through and administrators take into consideration all the work we've done," said UI student Kaytlin Reedy.

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