Moving Forward: Reinventing the Thunderbird Mission

Photo courtesy of The Faith
Photo courtesy of The Faith

By Amanda Cardini, Staff Writer

This week Thunderbird announced that the campus my classmates, countless alumni before us and I have come to know and love as a home will be closed within the next year. The school is moving to Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

The announcement has been met with a mixture of emotions, opinions and uncertainty. The email that current students received answered few questions, but simply announced that at some point within the next year our home would be closing. We were told that either next fall or next spring Thunderbird would close for good, that a new facility is being built in downtown Phoenix that won’t be finished until 2021, and that until then we will be moved to an “interim facility.” It did not give a definitive date of when this is happening, and as a student that will be affected by this for one semester at minimum, if not two, this email raised many concerns. It did not say what they plan to do for housing until the new building is finished. One concern of mine is what students who had planned to live on campus will do. If housing is provided during this “transition period” as it was referred to in the email, what will the price difference be? Having done my undergrad at ASU I know how much more expensive ASU’s housing is than what Thunderbird is currently charging. What about those of us that had budgeted specifically for Thunderbird’s prices?

It also did not answer questions of why this eviction is occurring before a new facility is finished being built. It did not say what will happen to the current campus other than “redevelopment.” It didn’t mention whether the history of the place would be preserved in the new building. It was only made clear that the Glendale location is closing.

The Thunderbird campus is nothing special when viewed from the outside; the buildings are old, some of the dorms are old military barracks and the campus lacks certain features like a gym, updated technology, or decent dining options. But for the students, it has become home. The quirks are known and loved by all who have been lucky enough to experience the “mystique” firsthand.

Though some may disagree, in my opinion there are many aspects that keep the mystique alive today. It’s alive in the legacy of buildings like the Tower and the Pub. It exists in the fact that this odd, seemingly random stretch of Arizona hosts representatives from all corners of the world. It’s the fond memories of nights that turned into mornings at the Fish or the pool. Or the walks across campus after a long night of studying when you’re half delirious. It’s driving into campus after traveling, seeing the Thunderbird logo and knowing you’re home.

But it is most prominent in the relationships between T-birds. A special understanding and bond comes with being thrust into a strange, perhaps unnatural environment, united under a common goal of becoming global leaders. I can’t help but think some of this critical bonding will be lost once Thunderbird is housed in a shiny new building just like any other in downtown Phoenix. No longer will Thunderbird be an oasis in the desert for the misfits. The isolation of the Thunderbird campus created an environment where students are forced to practice communicating, learning about and working with students from various cultures. An urban campus will be hard-pressed to recreate this.

The move to ASU was announced as a way of providing ample opportunities for progress, and many believe that if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backwards. But to me, computers in every classroom, brand new buildings and proximity to ASU’s other colleges are not what make Thunderbird special. The obsession with “new” can be found anywhere, especially at ASU where buildings are constantly renovated and innovation is boasted. What made Thunderbird different was the fact that you could feel the decades of history running through the veins of the albeit slightly rundown campus.

Change is uncomfortable for many. And while Thunderbirds are meant to be “comfortable in uncomfortable situations” I feel sure that most Thunderbirds also understand the importance of legacy and history to a culture. This change to downtown Phoenix is particularly uncomfortable as it unravels and redefines decades of soul and spirit. When I walk across the Thunderbird campus or study in the Tower, I can’t help but think of how many incredible students have walked these steps before me. T-birds of the near future won’t be able to say the same.

The thing about history is that it never stops being created. Perhaps the T-birds of the distant future will have a new legacy to build on because once the current campus is gone, the Thunderbird mystique will have no choice but to reinvent itself. The email was right about one thing — we are indeed entering a period of transition. The transition is going to be bumpy. Those of us that will have experienced both the old Thunderbird and the beginning of the new will likely be the most inconvenienced. However, once the new campus has been established for a few years a new history will begin to take form. Perhaps some 5-10 years in the future a new version of the Thunderbird legacy will have fully formed.

Many are saying that Thunderbird is not a place, it’s the people who attend it. This may be ultimately true, but it can’t be denied that the place is important. No matter how you slice it, this is the end of a significant chapter in Thunderbird history. But the people and the relationships formed between them are the only way left to ensure the true Thunderbird mission lives on in some way. The only way to proceed is to reinvent, adapt and begin building a legacy again.

It won’t be easy; taking the time to grieve is important, but we must be ready to roll up our sleeves and do what we can to keep at least part of the spirit of Thunderbird alive in its students at its new home. I believe it is inevitable that a new culture and a new legacy will arise with time. But I hope it is one that at least in some small part builds upon Thunderbird’s intended mission and historical past.

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