Where the Coeds Gather: The Impact and Importance of Student Unions
In a galaxy long ago and far away, university students made dormitories their domiciles. Outside of classrooms, dorm rooms, as well as libraries and cafeterias, served as campus social hubs. Those days seem as dated as the original Star Wars technology. Increasingly, state-of-the art student union buildings are now the epicenters of social collegiate life.
Housing essential student services such as academic counseling, registration, and financial aid, student union buildings also offer individual and group study spaces, cafeterias, cafes, coffee shops, banks, bookstores, convenience shops, and even movie theaters and bowling alleys. They are the locations where students go to see and be seen. And for the institutions themselves, they provide a key element to student retention and recruitment.
Places of meaningful connection and support for collegiate life
Often located centrally on campus, student union buildings provide campuses with a chance to showcase major aspects of their institutions. Prospective students and their families often gain critical first impressions of the higher educational experience when they visit a campus student services facility.
What are the critical elements for campuses to consider? Well-designed student unions need to be open and engaging spaces, filled with light – both natural and artificial. Incorporating flexible design features that allow for multiple functions from formal large events to more intimate and informal gatherings is essential. Designers today can choose from a large array of flexible furniture to give students the ability to craft and manipulate the space as wanted, essential to match the highly independent nature of demanding millennials and Gen Z students.
Contemporary student union spaces also are technology rich – inspiring and inviting for one-on-one conversations or small group activities. Many students gravitate towards these spaces, where Internet and Wi-Fi access are givens, instead of using the more traditional libraries for individual or group studies.
Incorporating natural outdoor features lures students to partake of sweeping views of the campus. A prime example is the Casper College University Union in Wyoming. In this facility, DLR Group created glass portals that punched through the exterior skin with revealing views of the surrounding landscape that became a popular student-centric gathering space.
The building as a branding element
Hallmarks of student union spaces include design elements that perpetuate the institution’s brand. It is critical to detail the school’s identity in such spaces, even when sharing facilities.
Casper College University Union needed to support the brands of the two different client entities within the same facility: Casper College and the University of Wyoming. Through workshop sessions with stakeholders from both, the design team was able to present a variety of product and finish choices playing off colors and textures that related back not only to each client’s brand, but also to their unique region of the country.
Working with the design team, stakeholders from each entity agreed on a warm and inviting scheme with a variety of color tones reflecting the cultural character of the local area, as well as subtle references to their own colors and College and University brands. Spaces shared by students and the greater College and University community, such as the recreation, cafeteria and dining areas, feature a bolder color palette, pulling visitors in to see what the lively spaces are all about.
Student unions can contribute to campus success in many ways. Student success today depends more and more on community spaces where essential socialization can occur. They are the one-stop locations where all members of the student body feel welcome, where they can gather to study or take in entertainment, sports activities, meals or simply hang out. Whether we are rehabbing existing spaces or creating new ones, it is important to acknowledge that student unions are indeed the new campus social centers.