Since 1891, more than 11,000 graduates have built their futures at Union College. From July 2-11, the college will celebrate that heritage at the General Conference Session in San Antonio, inviting attendees to build representations of their hopes and goals out of Legos.
The General Conference Session is the official world meeting of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Held every five years, delegates representing the church’s 18.5 million members gather to vote on leadership and policies, as well as share the work happening around the globe. While the delegates only number 2,400, the total number of attendees is expected to exceed 70,000.
“There is really no other time so many Adventists gather in one place,” said LuAnn Davis, vice president for Advancement and a member of the committee who planned Union College’s presence at the event. “As a Seventh-day Adventist college, this is a rare opportunity to connect with our constituents, decision makers and prospective students. We are still reaping the benefits of the impression we made five years ago in Atlanta.”
Making an impact
Walking in to the exhibitor hall at the General Conference Session in 2010, one of the first things you might have noticed was the climbing wall standing out (literally) above the crowd. With the help of students from Union College’s International Rescue and Relief program, thousands of kids, pastors, delegates and other attendees climbed thirty feet in the air–and often went straight from being unharnessed to the back of the line to do it all over again. You might also have taken note of the booth’s line of iPads, devices that were still new and rare in 2010, and chose from a selection of videos, such as a music video for “Slinga da Ink” or “An Amazing Race (to Union College).“
The Union College booth in Atlanta gained the attention of church media outlets, and went on to win a Gold Quill Award for Excellence from the International Association of Business Communicators. For many new students and parents, it was their first time hearing about the academically challenging yet surprisingly affordable little college in Nebraska.
Limitations lead to creativity
When it came time to plan for the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, new limitations meant the planning committee could not simply recreate the success of the previous booth. For this General Conference Session, all of the Adventist colleges in the North American Division are limited to booths of the same size and in the same area of the exhibit hall (with the exceptions of Southwestern Adventist University, as the host school, and Oakwood University, Andrews University and Loma Linda University, which are under the General Conference, not the North American Division). The new booth could only be one third the size of the exhibit in Atlanta.
The success of Union’s climbing wall in 2010 made it a natural choice when the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities (AACU) began planning how to draw prospective students into the space shared by the college and university booths. While it will still be run by Union College international rescue and relief students, it will now promote Adventist higher education in general, not any specific college.
“When we first heard the new rules, we really felt that Union was at a disadvantage,” said Steve Nazario, director of visual communication and chair of the planning committee. “We don’t have the same name recognition as some of the other schools, so we have to work harder to stand out.”
“In some ways, the limitations we faced as we began to plan this booth turned into an advantage for us for us,” said Ryan Teller, director of public relations. “We had to get creative, and I think we’ve found a way to really stand out again.” With everyone, not just Union, confined to a 20×20 foot space, he hopes Union’s focus on creating a fun and interactive environment will set the college apart.
While brainstorming what could be done in and outside of the booth space, the planning committee discussed a wide variety of ideas, many of which would have required significant time and technical expertise to pull off. When Ben Barber, a committee member, joked that he’d have more fun playing with Legos, the committee agreed.
“It’s hard not to love Legos,” said Nazario. “Kids of all ages light up with the possibilities they represent, and parents remember them fondly from our own childhoods. You just have to look at them to understand what to do. They’re cross-cultural and cross-generational.”
Small footprint, big impression
The booth itself is made up of a skeleton of metal trussing and graphics designed to look like Lego blocks, with pieces missing in certain places and eight-inch Lego figures–dressed as construction workers–standing on scaffolding and holding up blocks to fill them in. More figures appear around the booth painted to represent professions taught at Union College, including a nurse, doctor, teacher and artist.
“Almost everything was made right here at Union College,” Nazario said. “Last year Seth McNeil, an engineering professor, bought a 3D printer, and he had been playing with creating these eight-inch Lego people and showed them to me. Then when we had this idea for the booth, we started working with him to make fourteen figures.”
Elena Cornwell, a senior international communication major, painted the figures by hand, while Alina Matheson, a senior graphic design major with experience in 3D rendering, worked to print accessories and hair.
Near the front of the booth are several podiums designed to look like large Lego bricks turned on their sides, and sitting on them are computers available to Union College alumni and prospective students. The computers allow booth workers to update alumni information and check them in, and as well as allow alumni to connect with friends who are also in attendance. Prospective students can fill out an electronic information request form so they can begin receiving communication from Union about majors, finances and other topics.
A 10×3 foot table covered in green Lego plates stands in the middle of the booth, where anyone who passes by can stop and build whatever they like. “That’s another purpose of our booth,” Teller said. “To encourage people to stop by and just hang out. We’ll be holding daily contests and handing out t-shirts to people who build the coolest things then post their creations on social media.”
A preconstructed, six-foot Lego rendition of the clock tower–an iconic structure at Union College–stands at the very front of the booth, elevated on an 18″ pedestal of its own so as to appear even larger to passersby. “For something as big as that,” Teller said, “you have to have a metal base and add the Lego pieces around it, because Legos just aren’t strong enough to support it. You’ll be able to tell it’s not really supported by Lego pieces, but it’ll look like it, which is what counts.”
But that is not the only draw. In an effort to make Union College stand out even more, the booth has a second story. Upstairs, visitors can sit to talk with college employees, watch videos about the school, and look at a diorama of notable sites in the Lincoln and Omaha area made out of Legos.
“We’d love for people to know the name ‘Union College’ and associate it with creativity, personal attention, problem solving, adaptability and finding your calling.” Teller said. “The Legos and the theme of ‘Build your future’ aren’t just gimmicks, they are metaphors for these values embedded in a Union College education.”
Curious to see the Lego doctors, nurses, and construction workers for yourself? Stop by Union’s booth (A556) in San Antonio, and be ready to have some fun.
By Kaylin Thurber