Q+A: Seven Reflections on Student Life
A collegiate student’s social experience is equally as important as the education he receives or the degree he earns. Students are inherently social beings who crave interaction with others as a way to build meaningful relationships that will last a lifetime. As a designer of higher education facilities, I consider student life through the built environment, and constantly search for ways to holistically elevate the student experience, both academically and socially.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Dr. Dione Somerville, Vice President for Student Affairs at Bloomsburg University, and Bruce Christine, General Manager of Dining Services at Lehigh University, to reflect on student life and discuss how to create a vibrant student body through community, experience, and connections.
1. We define student life spaces as all spaces outside of academic classrooms, lecture halls, and formal teaching spaces. These spaces range from Student Centers, Dining Halls, and Residence Halls, to the places where students can gather in large or small groups in non-formal ways and learn valuable social and communication skills. Can you describe why these spaces are so important to the education of young adults?
Dr. Dione Somerville: Colleges and universities are charged with enrolling teenagers and graduating adults who are ready to contribute to modern society. That development can only happen when an institution has robust facilities and spaces for all forms of learning—curricular and co-curricular. The public and elected officials often place a lot of emphasis on the cost of higher education, seamless transfer, graduating in four years, or job placement rates. All of these are extremely important, yet none of these ideas are as meaningful if the graduate is merely credentialed and not educated.
Graduates need to possess crucial universal skills. For example, graduates should have critical reasoning skills, a mastery of verbal and written communication, value humility and empathy, and understand that true diversity is more than categories and numbers. They need an understanding of self, and their own values and morals. They need to have an understanding of how they want to carve out their own place in the world. These skills are attained as part of a comprehensive collegiate education experience, and students cannot realize any of these ideals without appropriate spaces for this development to occur.
A few years ago we remodeled space in our student union, removing a wall from a conference room to make more student gathering space. It has been incredibly popular. In the last few years, some of my favorite moments have been the weekly student Bible study group, the autism awareness club with educational posters, peer wellness educators who discuss different topics such as sexual assault, alcohol awareness, and others, as well as debates before the last presidential election between the College Republicans and College Democrats. In nice weather, these activities extend to the patio immediately outside this space, creating a seamless concourse for out-of-class learning.
2. Are there specific things about the design of your dining venue that contribute to student life and create community?
Bruce Christine: Dining spaces must be multifunctional. We need spaces to accommodate individuals and groups at all hours of the day. By providing a variety of dining platforms, we are able to meet the dining needs of individuals, small groups, or large groups. Seating in our dining facilities ranges from soft couches to high back booths, and we offer tables that hold one or two, to groups of 20 or more. Seating is as unique and independent as a customer’s taste buds. Some of our facilities that cater to large groups hold louder crowds, while some are designed to be quieter for individual work or small group meetings. Both types of environments are necessary and contribute to the overall student experience. We want students to feel as if they were sitting in their dining room at their family home when dining in one of our facilities.
3. Food is a strong influencer in bringing people together. The dining program that you oversee does so much more than just serve food. Can you share how it contributes to the campus culture? Why do you believe that students are placing high value on being connected to the food they eat?
BC: Dining facilities at Lehigh University are easily accessible. We deliver food from multiple platforms, which means at any given time a student is within walking distance from a dining facility. Our students travel the world on personal trips where they aren’t afraid to try new foods or different cuisines. We’ve responded to their taste buds by offering a variety of food options from different cultures in our three student restaurants and multiple retail locations. Plus, the majority of the food we prepare is fresh, cooked immediately after a student orders while he is standing in line. Burgers are grilled in front of customers, our pizza dough is made fresh and baked after it has been ordered, our deli is made-to-order, and we prepare fresh crepes every day.
Students are mindful of what they are eating. They realize additives are contributing to an increase in allergies, and they want to know that the food they are eating is healthy and clean. Two popular programs are the farm-to-table and the simple servings, which is an allergy-free zone to accommodate students who suffer from different types of allergies.
Lehigh University has a full-time, registered dietician on staff to offer personal guidance to students and faculty. She meets one-on-one with students, or with groups such as the athletic department, to help individuals make informed dietary choices. Many students who suffer from allergies don’t want to give up the social experience that comes with dining. They want to have a meal plan, and our dietician can guide those individuals to make the right decisions for their personal needs.
4. We also know that student life spaces are often critical to the recruitment and retention of students. What are the spaces that have the highest impact on prospective and current students? And why?
DS: From my perspective, so many of the students who leave an institution do so because they did not make the needed connections on campus; with faculty, with staff, or with other students. Student life spaces help facilitate those connections. When we opened our second Starbucks on campus, we knew it was successful when we saw students, faculty, and staff gathering there together. Meetings and study groups are frequent in that space.
I think recruitment works much the same way. From students who decided not to enroll, we received feedback that they thought our housing was sub-par. This information confirmed our suspicions and we moved forward with a new suite-style residence hall. We already knew that we lacked this style of housing and that our students were missing this developmental opportunity. This feedback was key in moving forward with the revitalization of our housing.
5. Colleges and universities are seeing a dramatic increase in enrollment in student organizations and clubs. What do you think are the primary influences that are driving this increase? What types of spaces are clubs and organizations looking for today?
DS: When online classes and programs began to emerge, some critics lauded it as the death knell of traditional colleges and universities. The same conversation happened to a lesser extent when massive open online courses (MOOCs) began. Ignored in these conversations is that for traditional students, a sense of space is critical to a comprehensive collegiate experience. Human interaction remains important.
Students involved in clubs and organizations are much the same. They need space where they can choose to be independent, yet have access to their resources, advisers, student affairs personnel, etc. Formal and informal meeting space, storage space, access to supplies, computers, printers and copiers, and access to personnel who can assist with questions all work in tandem to help student organizations be successful.
6. As you engage with students, what are they requesting in the way of student life space and student life programs? Do you see trends? Are there differences from say five or 10 years ago?
DS: I think it's vital for higher education leaders to keep abreast of student behavior and trends. Often, students don't explicitly express what their needs are leaving it dependent upon college and university personnel to interpret behavior and needs. Students continually evolve regarding how they want to engage with the university and its resources. However, what their needs are have been consistent. They need interaction and connection with faculty, staff, and other students. This is how they grow and develop as individuals.
BC: Food is global and local at the same time. Right now Asian foods and spicy foods are very popular with our customers, however farm to table is equally as popular. By 2020, Lehigh University has made a commitment that 20 percent of our purchases will be from local resources. Students want to know we are using fresh and wholesome ingredients in our meal options.
One of the biggest differences in today’s dining experience from 10 years ago is the number of allergies. A decade ago we were battling peanut allergies, now we have a defibrillator on one wall and an EpiPen on the other wall due to the pure volume of allergies people are exposed to on a daily basis. At least once a year we renovate a dining facility to enhance the way we serve and meet the dining needs of our students.
7. DLR Group places great importance on designing spaces that foster acceptance, diversity, and inclusion. Do you believe that physical space, such as a dining hall or other space, can influence these things?
DS: One primary way in which space can foster diversity and inclusion is by being visible. In every design process, individuals must decide which services and offices should be more visible along typical student traffic patterns. Centers for diversity and inclusion serve campus communities by providing advocacy and services for students who identify as a specific population, and by providing education to the campus community at large. If a service is not visible, it can send an implicit message that its function is less important, thus marginalizing that function. Advocates can even see lack of prominent space as a microaggression, which would work in opposition to the goals of an inclusive campus community.
BC: When a customer walks into a restaurant they observe the atmosphere: Is the lighting adequate? Is the seating right? Is the mood warm and comfortable? We want the experience to be a positive one from the moment they step inside the facility to the moment they leave the building. Greeters at our dining facilities know many students by name, which sets the tone for a pleasant dining experience. Plus, we offer personal amenities for students. USB ports in many of our booths allow students to plug in while they are eating and soft seating enhances the experience for many of our students to give students a place to study or work in a comfortable environment.
Bonus: As architects and designers, what advice would you share with us to help us better design dining or other spaces that are responsive to the current needs of students?
DS: I think attention needs to be paid to our wellness services, including counseling, health centers, and centers for students with disabilities. Designers need to make these functions accessible, yet give the populations utilizing these services the privacy they desire.
BC: First, designers must listen to their client to understand their end-user base. No two universities have the same vision or mission. We all have specialized needs and a custom dining solution should meet the unique needs of the study body. Colleges are competitive and as the pool of students shrinks the competition will only increase. Student life sets colleges apart, and creating that memorable dining experience plays into a student’s decision on which college to attend.
I believe a positive student life experience can have a long lasting impression on that individual, preparing him or her to be a model citizen.
What action has your institution taken to enhance student life on your campus? I’d love to hear from you and continue this conversation.