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Reducing Anxiety in Higher Ed with Empathetic Design

Recognizing the power of comfort, choice and community on student wellbeing.

Going to college is an exciting time, full of opportunities to make new connections. For many of us, major transitions, such as living away from home for the first time, create anxiety and stress. We've seen an upward trend in anxiety and loneliness among high school and college students, exacerbated by the pandemic. Without the built-in structure that home provides for many, campuses have been strategizing how to best meet the growing range of student needs around mental health and wellbeing – now understood as a critical component of student success.

Recognizing and supporting students with different abilities and backgrounds has never been more important. One response can be seen in the rise of “wellness centers,” specific places on campus which integrate social/emotional health with physical health. But more and more, campuses are looking to embed wellness into all the areas students frequent, especially campus hubs like dining halls and student centers. Through proactive programming and empathetic design, student centers can foster inclusivity, and community connections which create a sense of belonging and facilitate access to a growing range of student support services.

Two recent student center projects at Mount Holyoke College and the College of Wooster sought to create vibrant and welcoming hearts of their respective campuses. Strategically integrating campus dining venues ensured frequent, daily use by the campus community as a foundation for subsequent programming decisions. The transformations of both student centers represent the nexus of three important trends:

  • Designing for inclusivity
  • Student-centered decision making
  • Creating a sense of belonging

Mount Holyoke's Community Center includes eight unique dining rooms, including the Tranquil Room, which features additional sound absorption and a "no cellphones" policy to create something akin to the quiet car on a train. The different dining environments, like the daily menu rotation, reinforce choice and agency. To one side of the building's main entrance, a "one-stop-shop for student life" brings together several different support services and advising from across campus. Its highly trafficked location ensures students have frequent, easy access while fostering relationships between the students and student life staff as they pass each other regularly. Both this proximity and familiarity further reduce psychological barriers for students when they need support or guidance.

Other programming discussions led to the creation of the Unity Center, a flexibly used gathering place to host a wide variety of meetings and programs on topics related to culture, diversity, inclusion, and other areas critical to student leadership and identity development. By integrating such a space within a campus hub, conversations about equity and social justice that were already happening in dispersed areas were centered and made more visible and accessible to all students.

Building upon Mount Holyoke College’s “intimate dining rooms” tradition, the creation of spaces like the Tranquil Room ensured that the new 1000-seat dining center addressed the needs of students with sensory integration challenges.

At the College of Wooster, the approach that was piloted successfully at Mount Holyoke evolved into the full co-location of student support staff deemed critical to the College’s mission. The offices of the Dean of Students, Department of Res Life, Student Activities, and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion ("CDI”) encircle the new day-lit Upper Commons space. The spatial arrangement establishes a strong and clear presence for staff while also providing privacy, comfort, and safety for students. One administrator described it as “giving the students a hug.” Staff are both easily accessible and discreetly located behind a ring of student meeting rooms and semi-private hang-out nooks. This ensures that the Upper Commons feels like a “student space,” not a staff area. The student-centric feeling is amplified with positive distractions, including tackable perimeter walls for student “takeovers” and flags of the home countries of every enrolled student, proudly displayed as both recognition and celebration of cultural difference.

Flexible environments, such as the College of Wooster's Upper Commons, facilitate agency over privacy, sensory regulation, and social engagement while open sightlines promote feelings of safety and peer support.

As a sense of agency is crucial to wellbeing, various types of moveable furnishings allow students to adapt the space to their needs. Further, a variety of gathering spaces ranging from those quiet nooks to a central hearth to gather around, provides choice in how to gather within the space, whether seeking community or desiring some “alone together” time.

The inclusion of positive distractions like the "family photos" of students through the years reinforce feelings of generational connection and belonging in one of Mount Holyoke's new dining rooms.

By thoughtfully leveraging the positive potential of student-centric programming decisions and space design, campuses are creating positive student experiences which recognize, welcome, and support all identities and student needs. Fostering this sense of an inclusive, supportive community creates feelings of belonging – a critical ingredient to every student’s psychological wellbeing and ability to thrive.

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