How to Better Foster Belonging for Students Through Inclusive Campus Planning and Design

Understanding student success requires campus leaders to learn how best to meet the growing needs of students around mental health, wellbeing, and belonging.
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Last month, Bergmeyer Principal Matthew Hyatt presented to attendees at the 2023 Society of College and University Planning (SCUP) Conference alongside fellow industry leaders Courage Kusena, former College of Wooster alum, and additional content provided by Myrna Hernandez, Chief of Staff and Vice President of Administration at Grinnell College – discussing how to better foster belonging for students through inclusive planning and design.

With various perspectives shared on the student, administrative, and designer sides, three trending takeaways emerged to help campus leaders develop and implement strategies to create a greater sense of belonging, not only in the spaces created but in the processes through which they are made.

SCUP 2023

Understanding Student Success

For many students, college is an exciting time, full of opportunities to make new connections and newfound independence — For other students, major transitions (such as living away from home for the first time) can create anxiety and stress, and on top of that, the recent pandemic has only exacerbated these feelings of anxiety + loneliness. Campuses should be strategizing how their spaces and student support staff can be positioned to best meet the growing range of student needs around mental health, wellbeing, and belonging – now understood as critical components of student success.

Within our work experience, we are seeing the nexus of 3 important trends:

1. Designing Inclusively

2. Student-Centered Decision Making

3. Creating a True Sense of Belonging

We were also able to identify three key ingredients related to belonging, or as we like to call them, “The 3 C’s”:

  • Choice
  • Comfort
  • Community

We've come to understand that “involved” students on campus report feeling a deep sense of connection when these 3 C’s are nurtured.

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Mentimeter Live Word Clouds

During the presentation at SCUP, we leveraged a Mentimeter Live Word Clouds exercise from the audience members to garner input for questions everywhere from how the students are really feeling these days, to what tools they are using to include belonging and inclusion in the planning and design process.

Find their responses below:

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Mental Health and Choice

Students are at any point in their academic career more likely than not to feel stressed, as stress and anxiety are top factors severely impacting students’ academic performance overall. Everything from mental health to finances; climate change to politics; and loneliness to disconnectedness. But the biggest stressor we see trending in younger generations of students is feeling seen, heard, and respected for who they are as individuals in society. Nonetheless, students are also hopeful and excited about their ability to impact our collective future and desperately want to be part of a community and a place.

On the other hand, there is also budding excitement from students as we start to think beyond the last twenty years. With so many fresh opportunities for students, designers, and administrators to consider, we as industry leaders need to celebrate this evolution by finding new and innovative ways to better support these opportunities through action.

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Well-being and Comfort

Now more than ever before there is a palpable fear of failure most commonly associated with test taking and a paralysis of perfectionism brought on by social media’s influence. Students don’t see themselves as agents of their own wellness – but we’re starting to find ways to empower them to become those agents. The messaging is changing around wellbeing because let's face it, college is hard.

There is also a growing tension between academic rigor and wellness. Although wellness is primarily associated with physical and mental health, well-being in that sense must be associated with a thriving campus culture.

The ultimate goal of wellness stems from the greater sense of belonging - the secret sauce to almost any campus’ success, and one that was a top strategic goal for our work with the College of Wooster.

Campus administrators must learn to understand students are even more challenged with socialization and feeling "comfortable" in groups in the post-pandemic world. That being said, administrators also need to stop assuming counselors are the sole answer. This current generation of students has a well‐developed sense of resiliency and a greater ability to get through crisis events than previous generations. Many campuses are now working to decentralize counseling so that it’s not simply a front-line resource. What students need is oftentimes just a listening ear, and while telehealth is here to stay, many students prefer the intimacy and connectedness associated with in‐person interactions.

Two major questions we faced with the College of Wooster project were:

  • How can we change how students engage with one another and with staff so that they don’t need to rely on counseling?
  • How can we foster opportunities for those listening ears?

At the Lowry Center, the strategic co‐location of student support staff was deemed critical to meeting that goal. The offices of the Dean of Students, Department of Res Life, Student Activities, and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (“CDI”) encircle the new Upper Commons space. There are now daily interactions with the Dean of Students and Res Life Staff instead of places one would go when there's a disciplinary issue. They're not just there when you need them, they are always there --easily accessible and discreetly located behind a ring of student meeting rooms and semi‐private hang‐out nooks, something Myrna once described as “giving the students a hug.

Specific to “student-centered decision making” and despite hearing a lot of voices in the process, needing to make decisions as a member of the Project Committee

Myrna noted that students have a hard time thinking abstractly about their experiences. Although the project team heard from many students throughout the process, she indicated that a key to their success was that their VP of Communications was in the Committee meetings and her role was to make sure the group didn’t end their meetings until they were clear on how these decisions would ultimately benefit their students.

This consistently empathetic and thoughtful approach helped ensure the Project Committee’s decisions were consistently grounded in the student experience and clearly communicated to the campus community.

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Belonging and Community

We are seeing an increased recognition of the value of in‐person gatherings as a component of health and wellbeing. This is true both in our hybrid workplace projects, as well as our student center and dining hall work where we see a growing call for more variety in gathering spaces focused on different sizes and layouts to spaces uniquely tailored through the “something for everyone” approach.

Although Zoom and other virtual tools allow us all to accomplish tasks no matter where we are working from, it’s physical spaces that truly allow us to connect more deeply and authentically as humans. The role of student hubs as campus gathering places is more valuable than ever before - valuable to the students and even more valuable to campus culture. These spaces need to be welcoming and inviting, with a distinctive sense of place enabling students to gather in different ways, make social connections, and even be “alone together."

Our approach to the College of Wooster project was guided by the concept that there should always be the option of a choice. At Wooster, students can decide between 4 dining rooms and 2 reservable rooms that seat 12‐14 (all of which offer choices in seating types from booths and banquettes to high‐tops and single counters). Each space has a uniquely designed feel and use case, from school spirit overlooking the playing fields to one that focuses on the tradition of gathering around "the pit" ‐ an original fireplace that is a big draw on cold winter days. All areas of the student center also pick up on the uniquely-Wooster tartan motif – reinforcing the underlying theme “Tartan as Community.”

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The Design Process

Opening parts of the design process to all students – frankly to all stakeholders – is a key aspect of an inclusive design process, but that now comes in a variety of forms. Our job as designers is to ask questions and to listen to as many voices as possible before we begin to synthesize what we’ve heard into design proposals, solutions, and spaces. Take for example our recent work with the College of Wooster (CoW), a project that was advertised as a "Student Center Transformation," meaning it required a complete rethink holistically.

In place of traditional “student forums”, we developed a set of image-based collaborative design exercises to engage a broad group of stakeholders in design thinking, an approach that fostered dialogue and debate about the experiences imagined by each individual.

By leading with empathy, we are able to put ourselves in other people's shoes and more deeply connect with how they might be feeling about their personal challenges, circumstances, or situations.

This is all in the imagination and calls for participants to try to describe in words the feeling of being in a space they are imagining.

One great planning exercise we adopted is rapid prototyping. Here we start with broad questions like: What should be in this building? And What should it feel like? We then collect student responses and begin to organize the various words and consensus images into arrangements that might represent full floors or portions of the proposed building, discussing topics like what goes well together, and more importantly why. These combinations and juxtapositions can provide critical information that will inform our design process, while simultaneously building consensus among the participants.

Another valuable tool is passive engagement – an analog version of social media to some degree that starts with a conversation including statements and images assembled through our other group engagement exercises. Taking stacks of blank post-it notes and gathering the group into a public space, we work to engage the community to share their feedback in a safe and supportive environment. The consensus building is organic and builds over hours and days, often leading students to return again and again to see what's been added.

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Proof of Concept

During the design process for the College of Wooster, we ensured the purpose of the Campus Center was to provide opportunities for equitable and inclusive student engagement, growth, and development to foster the strongest community. Spaces aren’t the solution. They are part of a strategy to achieve that purpose.

The goal was to find as many opportunities to engage with students during the planning and design process as possible. It was crucial to never underestimate the value of dedicated students, like Courage, being ON the CoW design project committee.

The Takeaway

To best meet students' needs, campuses need to create spaces that evenly prioritize and promote mental health, well-being, and belonging. In highlighting the importance of creating spaces that promote these attributes, universities are able to combine those ideals as part of a strategy to enhance overall student engagement and community development. This collaborative approach brings together perspectives from students, administrators, and designers to ensure that the purpose behind campus spaces goes beyond aesthetics to support equitable and inclusive experiences for all.