Celebrating with speeches, hard hats and golden shovels, work finally began Thursday on the new University Center of Southern Oklahoma campus.

"This historic ground breaking is symbolic of the commitment the community of Ardmore has made to higher education," said Southeastern president Larry Minks, who taught at the former Ardmore Higher Education Center in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

UC staff and students joined local and state officials and leaders from the three partner schools to break ground for the health, science and math center.

The new building will house all the science- and math-related programs from the partner schools, Murray State College, Southeastern Oklahoma State University and East Central University. This includes ECU's Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

"STEM careers are critical for our future," said Joy McDaniel, Murray State College president. "It's the jobs we will have to prepare students for. We are excited to expand those options here in Ardmore."

The center will be the first building on the new 80-acre site located north of the school's current main location. It is a quarter mile north of Veterans Boulevard on Mt. Washington Road.

Construction will begin fully after Jan. 1.

The building is the result of a fundraising campaign that will allow the center to grow to 2,000 students. Classes will also be removed from the old grocery store that currently houses the nursing program, and the modular buildings on the UC main campus.

"We're enjoying something that has been in the making for many years," said Ardmore Mayor Sheryl Ellis, who earned her master's degree in Ardmore. "It's good for Ardmore, good for the citizens and good for the region. There are 1,800 students being educated in multiple sites across Ardmore. Now, they will have one campus."

UC began as the Ardmore Higher Education Center and was located at an Ardmore school on Mt. Washington Road. The current main site on Veterans Boulevard is owned by Ardmore City Schools, and evening classes also take place at Ardmore High School.

Since officials began looking to have their own campus, the center has undergone a name change, failed efforts to become a branch campus of just one school, a failed tax initiative and changes to where the new campus would be located.

"A key element of any successful community is a commitment to education," said Keith King, First National Bank vice president and Ardmore city commissioner. "To say this has been years in the making is an understatement. It's been a real test of patience of the people. The perseverance has been absolutely spectacular."

Now officials find themselves finally moving forward as a united center partnering with three institutions to further the higher educational opportunities of southern Oklahoma.

"We are completing the dream from the old Mount Washington school building 40 years ago," said Kirk Rodden, UC board of trustees chairman. "It's impossible for one institution to be all things for all people. This way, we can capitalize on the strengths of each institution."