Reducing Anxiety in Higher Ed with Empathetic Design

Recognizing the power of comfort, choice and community on student wellbeing.
Web Ed IG V1

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.

RAED Titles

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.

RAED Titles2

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.

RAED Titles3

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.

Trending now

2023 Women's History Month: Q&A with the Women of Bergmeyer
In honor of Women's History Month and to commemorate the courage and achievements of the women who came before us, we’ve shined the spotlight on ourselves to share the thoughts and messages of our very own Bergies. These influential women inspire, pioneer, and break the bias of gender inequality in their everyday lives.
Tik Tok Gen Z web
How Gen Z and TikTok Created a Consumer Revolution
One of the most prominent present-day marketing challenges a business can face is capturing a target audience’s attention and keeping them intrigued for the long haul.
Hampshire Web Thumb
Enduring Design: Hampshire Dining Commons Turns Ten
We asked the UMass Amherst Dining Services team to share their thoughts, feedback, and statistics on the modern-day Hampshire Dining Commons.
Join us for the Upcoming Career Paths through PAVE Event in Boston
Help us grow the future of retail at Career Paths through PAVE.
HHAC 2023 Scholarship
The 2023 Hip Hop Architecture Camp x Bergmeyer Scholarship + Internship Program
We are excited to announce that the application window for the 2023 Hip Hop Architecture Camp x Bergmeyer Scholarship and Internship Program is now open!
Sociasl2 05
The Romance of Tangibility
In light of the recent movement for “vintage” innovation, Bergmeyer Graphic Designer Ariana Piacquadio reflects on the romanticization of the analog world. As the tables are rapidly turning backward with tech so commonplace, real-life experiences you can engage with using all your senses start to embody a new kind of nuance and exclusivity.
2022 CD Retails New Horizon
Retail's New Horizon
How can retail brands seize the moment and reinvent themselves?
2022 Behind the Bar Web
Behind the Bar
Operational efficiency is critical to ensuring a seamless experience in the hospitality industry. Our design team decided to get "behind the bar" with several sought-after libation destinations serving Boston's Seaport community to get a design perspective from the people integral to facilitating world-class restaurant experiences.
2022 SDAT Petaluma Web Full
Reimagining Petaluma’s Community as a 15-Minute City
The passionate locals of Petaluma called upon us to help them achieve their goal of becoming a more accessible “15-minute city,” where every resident can access most of their daily necessities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
2022 CK Meta Web
Connecting with Customers in Virtual Retail Experiences
How will shopping in the Metaverse compare with real-life experiences?
Promotions 2022 2023
Bergmeyer Announces 2022 Leadership and Practice Promotions
As we look forward to the New Year, we are celebrating the many achievements and successes of our team.
2022 Bthe Change Web
B the Change - A Commitment to Giving Forward
A new social responsibility mission statement that reinforces giving forward as a core part of our design collaborative.
2022 Quinn Metaverse Web
The Responsibility of Designers in a Virtual World
Although the Metaverse is still in its infancy, designers should be prepared to play a significant role in the next digital revolution.
2023 PAVE Scholarship web
The 2023 Bergmeyer x PAVE Scholarship and Mentorship Experience
Submit for the 2023 Bergmeyer x PAVE Scholarship and Mentorship Experience by January 13, 2023!
Metaverse Web
Designing the Future: The Meta-Dilemma on the Role of Designers in a Virtual World
Four designers share their unique perspectives on what we may experience in the Metaverse and task the design industry with being ready to create for both the physical and the virtual world.
The Pan-Mass Challenge 2022: Trusting Your Instincts and the Importance of Self-Advocacy
Team Bergmeyer recently rode in the 2022 Pan-Mass Challenge, which raises funds for cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Artboard 3
Design Outside the Lines
Built environments can guide our thoughts, behavior, and habits. So, in a world that is rapidly changing, why do many of the spaces we use every day remain the same? Bergmeyer Interior Designer Eliza Steele shares her thoughts on designing outside the lines.
Shutterstock 117585706
Designing Out Waste
Building waste accounts for a staggering 35-40% of worldwide waste in landfills, and carbon emissions from both building erection and deconstruction are increasing. These factors can be daunting when considering whether the design profession is an active or passive player- in the unending game we play each day with environmental management.
So-Ho Inspired: Design Trends in NYC
Our retail design team fueled our creativity and reinforced our desire for true connectivity.
Microsoft Teams image 2
Mike Davis on the role of Director of Corporate Social Responsibility
Transitioning from President to the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, Mike had the opportunity to re-imagine his role within our Design Collaborative to focus on Bergmeyer's goals of serving the greater public good.