Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
News & Events

Alumni Spotlight: Emily Ostertag Working to Design New SERF Building

Who better to help design the UW-Madison South East Recreational, or the SERF, than former UW-Madison swimmer and SoHE alumna Emily Ostertag (’06, ’08)? Eight years after finishing her masters in Interior Architecture at SoHE, Emily gets to work with her firm, HOK, to combine her passion for swimming, design and her alma mater in a”dream project.” For Emily, everything is truly coming full circle.

What was your path to your current position?

I grew up in Kansas City, MO and was recruited to swim at UW-Madison.  I always loved design and quickly decided on interior design/architecture as my major. Balancing swimming and interior design for four years was difficult, but I enjoyed the challenge.

After receiving my undergraduate degree, I stayed at UW-Madison for my master’s degree. Combining my interests, my thesis explored the need for an improved sense of place in collegiate swimming facilities (natatoriums) in order to enhance the overall experience of both spectators and athletes.  As part of my thesis, I designed a new natatorium for UW-Madison.

For the past four years I have worked at HOK Sport Recreation & Entertainment in Kansas City, MO.  I lead the interior design for our collegiate recreation and wellness studio projects. I’ve been blessed to work on recreation centers all over the country including Louisiana State University (LSU), Utah State University, University of Nebraska, University of Memphis, Ole Miss, University of Portland, and University of Central Arkansas.

In August, my coworkers and I interviewed for the new SERF project for UW-Madison. This includes tearing down the existing building and pool (which I trained at as an athlete!) and rebuilding a new recreation center. The new facility will also have a 50 meter pool, diving well with a 10 meter platform, and seating for 1,000 spectators.

It still feels surreal, but my firm won the project, and we are now halfway through the design of the new building.  It truly is my dream project to be working on a project for my alma mater.  It’s amazing how my journey has come full circle!  I’m honored to represent UW students and swimmers to design a much needed new facility!

Photo of Emily and Wei Dong
Emily, her family and professor Wei Dong pose outside of SoHE.

How did SoHE prepare you for your current role?

If it wasn’t for SoHE I wouldn’t be where I am today. My favorite professor and graduate school advisor, Wei Dong, played a huge role in my career path.  He encouraged and guided me toward combining my passion as both a swimmer/college athlete and an interior designer.  He was the reason why I found my ‘niche’ in the design industry.

For the SERF redesign project, how has your experience being a Badger and student athlete been an advantage?

As former badger and SoHE student, I understand the pride the students have for our school, campus, and city.  There is something special about UW-Madison that’s indescribable unless you attended the university.  As a frequent user of the SERF (as both a student and an athlete), I understand the shortfalls of the existing facility and what the students need and want in the new facility.  I spent countless hours training at the SERF.  For our interview for the SERF project we included a slide that showed the amount of time I spent training at the SERF:


How does it feel to connect back to UW through the SERF project?

It’s amazing.  I love being back on campus and seeing how the campus has evolved.  I’ve been able to see many familiar faces and connect back with former classmates, professors, and friends.  I have also had the opportunity to bring my 2-year old son to Madison, which is really special to me.

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