A few short weeks before the opening of the UC Irvine Student Center, Marc Tuchman navigates his way through the maze of newly carpeted offices, lounges and meeting rooms before pausing inside the door of a cavernous multipurpose room. He points to a light switch, which is slightly askew.

“We’ll have to fix that,” he muses, then hurries on.

As student center director, Tuchman’s been trouble-shooting throughout the 290,000-square-foot mega-building. If he’s particular about the details, it’s because he understands the project’s impact.

Students have been without a center since the old one closed for expansion in spring 2005. Anticipation about the new super-sized center is running high; the campus will celebrate its grand opening Oct. 24-26 with three days of festivities, including a “Peter’s Parade” electric golf cart spectacular, “Antstock” concert and “Shocktoberfest” Halloween gala. Adding to the pressure on Tuchman, the contractors, crew and Design & Construction Services: most of the center is slated to be up and running when school starts Sept. 24.

“A student center is so many things – because there are so many different kinds of students,” Tuchman says. “From their perspective, having a center makes all the difference in the world. They feel better about their college experience.”

More than 50 percent larger than its predecessor, the new center offers an amenity-filled arena to eat, shop, meet, surf the Web, watch TV, listen to music and, yes, study.

“It’s important to provide the kind of environment students are comfortable in,” Tuchman says. “Students like being seen and seeing others. They also need quiet space to tuck away with their books.”

The center boasts two food courts, a convenience store, a pub and nearly triple the conference and meeting space, including a ballroom big enough to accommodate a crowd of 1,200 – capacity second only to the Bren Events Center. The expansion also gave the Cross-Cultural Center space to add a larger multipurpose meeting room and additional lounge and study space.

The center terrace recalls the communal ambiance of a European plaza, drawing students from Ring Mall to the performance stage and other pleasurable distractions.

At the entrance to the west food court, an Anteater adorns one of five towers; he’s a 12-foot bas-relief copy of the statue at the Bren donated by Tuchman and his wife, Michelle. A smaller 9-foot cousin graces the tower at West Peltason and Pereira; at night, the backlit Anteater beckons students and visitors.

“In time, I think this will become an icon for UCI, just like UC Santa Barbara’s Storke Tower or UC Berkeley’s Sather Gate,” Tuchman says.

Students had a say in the center’s design – because they voted to foot the bill.

“We were committed to involving the students as much as we could,” Tuchman says. “We spent over a year talking about the strengths of the old facility and what they wanted in the new one.”

Tuchman, who joined UCI’s Student Affairs office 19 years ago when the center was undergoing its third expansion, said a center is especially important to students who commute.

“For those who don’t live on campus, the student center becomes a home away from home. If they’re not in class or the library or the recreation center, where can they go?” he says. “The center becomes their place to hang out.”