The national student union movement marks its beginnings from a small debating society begun at the University of Cambridge, England, during the middle part of the 19th century. Along with a similar organization at Oxford, the student unions became important vehicles for future leadership roles in England. By the end of the 19th century student unions had begun to form in America. Today hundreds of American universities belong to the Association of College Unions.
While the initial impetus for the formation of unions has changed from an elite student debate club to an organization serving the entire university community, its stated goals still reflect the historical origins of the student union association. The mission statement of The University of Arizona Student Memorial Union, for example, states that: "In all its processes, the union encourages self-directed activity, giving maximum opportunity for self-realization and for growth in individual, social competency and group effectiveness." The union's goal is the development of persons as well as intellects. Traditionally considered the "hearthstone" or "living room" of the campus, today's unions are gathering places of the college. The unions provide services and conveniences that members of the college community need in their daily lives and create an environment for getting to know and understand others through formal and informal associations. The unions serve as unifying forces that honor each individual and value diversity. The unions foster a sense of community that cultivates enduring loyalty to the college.
The idea for a student recreation center was first proposed by the President Cloyd Heck Marvin in 1923. This initial effort was followed in 1938 by a committee formed under the leadership of President Alfred Atkinson to raise money for a student union building. However this initiative stalled due to a lack of funding and the start of World War II. After nearly 28 years of planning, and $1.2 million in expenditures, The University of Arizona Student Memorial Union building was completed in 1951. The Student Memorial Union at the University of Arizona is so named because it is dedicated to the memory of soldiers who died during World War I and World War II. Numerous expansions have been added to the initial 1951 building. The facilities are being replaced as of 1999-2001.