Campus, community support crucial for Northern’s new residence halls

Man standing in kitchen of residence hall

ABERDEEN, S.D. – When Marty Sabolo accepted the position of Northern State University Residence Life director in 2015, he knew the university was planning to build a new residence hall.

After six months on the job, a second hall became a possibility. Then a few months later, that second hall morphed into two.

Fast-forward to today, and Northern has opened three new residence halls the past two years. Wolves Memorial Suites opened in fall 2017, and Great Plains East and West opened in fall 2018.

Constructing three residence halls was definitely a daunting task – but an exciting one, too.

“I was confident that Northern had the team in place to make it happen,” Sabolo said.

Timing was key: Wolves Memorial was well into the construction process by the time it was decided that Great Plains West and East would be two halls, he said.

“Wolves was going so well, that by the time I knew it was going to be a second and third hall, I was confident that we had the right team in place that we could make it work.”

Partnership Among Departments 

Throughout the process, there were certainly challenges, but Sabolo said it all came together thanks to a great partnership among departments, including purchasing, facilities and IT. “Everybody was so invested in doing this right for the students.”

He said it was fun to pick out all the features for the new halls, but not always an easy task.

“As you’re picking out these colors, you’re trying to remember that it’s not for you,” he said. “You’re not going to be the one living there. So I had to tell myself, ‘Is this what today’s college students are going to like?’ And then more importantly, ‘Is this what students five or six years down the road are going to like?’”

The end result: Students love the new facilities. Sabolo recalls an emotional moment walking across campus to Great Plains East when it first opened.

“There were students out in the Adirondack chairs around the fire pit, laughing and doing everything that I had envisioned it being,” he said. “And it was just this moment where I was like, ‘I’ve given the students that opportunity.’”

Another victory is how well the pod concept, with eight to 10 traditional double rooms situated around a common living space and community bathroom, has worked. Some people were skeptical at first, but Sabolo had done research and talked to colleagues at universities in other states. Now, there’s extra satisfaction in seeing it working well for Great Plains East.

Housing Applications Increasing

Housing applications are up, and Great Plains East seems to be the most popular hall among students. While Sabolo said he can’t pick a favorite, “I’m more invested in East and West.”

That’s because while Wolves Memorial Suites was a design-build project, where the architect came in with a detailed building design, Northern essentially started from scratch with Great Plains East and West. “We were able to say, ‘This is what the students want,’” he said.

Now, Residence Life is shifting focus to programming, including the living-learning communities within each residence hall. Goals also include filling the new halls and looking at ways to update the older residence halls to keep them current with today’s living standards.

“It’s safe to say we’re not going to sit on our laurels,” Sabolo said. “We’re going to continue to talk to the students and see what their wants and needs are.”

That’s his advice for other universities. Sabolo presented last year at the National Housing Officers Conference and has spoken to representatives from institutions across the state and region.

“One of the things I’ve told all of them is that student input, student buy-in, is so crucial.”

So is community support. Sabolo said Aberdeen loves Northern and realizes what the university means to the region.

“I personally, on behalf of the students, on behalf of my department, am so grateful to the community,” he said. “Because this was a labor of love for me, but this was a gift of love from the community.”

About Northern State University

Northern State University is a regional university that offers outstanding academics and exceptional extracurricular activities at an affordable price on a safe, welcoming campus. Northern State recently announced its Educational Impact Campaign, with a goal of raising $55 million for a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, new athletic and recreation fields, and an on-campus regional sports complex. Once the campaign is complete, NSU will be the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.