Kristen McPeek, 18, beat the lunch rush to Casper College's new dining hall Monday.
Around her grew a long line of Casper College students carrying backpacks and awaiting entry to a sleek new kitchen that opens into a wide dining room.
The dining hall is part of the new Casper College Student Union and University of Wyoming at Casper building, which opened in time for the first day of classes last week. A dedication ceremony at 2 p.m. today will formally christen the facility.
McPeek and her friend, Kourtney Layher, 19, have English class in the new facility, which in addition to the dining hall features a new coffee and sub sandwich shop, a student store, student services offices and study areas. It also houses classrooms and faculty offices for UW's Casper branch campus, which has operated mostly in a building off North Poplar Street in Casper until now.
"I really like the classrooms because the windows overlook Casper," McPeek said. "It's something new."
The building stands out from older buildings on campus, McPeek said.
"But I think the more Casper College grows, it'll fit in," she said.
Long lines of steel beams and tall windows set the contemporary student union apart from much of the campus's older architecture. Views from the building's top floors overlook Casper College's old dining hall, Roberts Commons, which will be demolished this spring.
The new facility is the focal point of Casper College's campus, college President Walt Nolte said.
"It really will act as the crossroads of the campus," Nolte said of the facility, which he hopes will make the hilly campus more walker-friendly by offering incentives -- such as food, coffee or couches -- for students to pass through it on foot.
Twenty-five years ago, Nolte said, Casper College had a student union that barely resembled the new facility today.
"Over the years we encroached upon it with a classroom here, an office there," Nolte said. "It finally got to the point where it wasn't a student center anymore."
That building, Nolte said, is badly deteriorating.
The new $32 million facility would not have happened without UW's involvement, Nolte said. It was funded in part by a $35 million local bond measure and contributions from UW, which has partnered with Casper College for nearly 40 years.
UW employs 18 faculty on site in Casper, Brent Pickett, dean of UW's outreach school, said.
He hopes that number can grow.
The new UW-Casper branch campus has room for more faculty and more students, Pickett said. More video conferencing classes can be taught by UW-Casper faculty thanks to new video technology and a new layout of conferencing-capable classrooms.
"The faculty that UW has here can in a more robust fashion contribute to classes being taught around the state, including back in Laramie," Pickett said.
UW is looking to expand degree offerings at its Casper branch. A request before the Legislature this session asks for two more faculty and a staff person to expand Casper College's medical laboratory technician program into a bachelor's program in clinical laboratory science, Pickett said.
It would be a welcome step for Casper College, according to Nolte.
"We're looking for -- hoping -- the university will expand its program offerings," Nolte said.