4 Characteristics Great Student Unions Have in Common
Student Unions are the heart and soul of a campus. They are placemaker buildings that stand as the most prominent and active location where all members of the student body can feel welcome. They are places to see and be seen, gather, and promote the unique student experience your school offers. They are hubs for student support, dining, promotion, retail, and socialization and all tie in to how impressions are formed.
A Brief History About Student Unions
As surprising as it is, if you looked at any campus map from the early 20th century, you would find that student union buildings actually don’t exist. In fact, having an established student union building on campus didn’t even start until the 1950s. Up to that point, the only indoor student social spaces available were limited to lobbies, hallways or auditoriums and recreation centers for larger events. As the importance of the student union has grown along with the changing of student demographics and educational goals, their purpose and design have evolved as well. As a result, today’s student union is now a place where students spend a substantial amount of time outside the classroom. They have become a cornerstone of student life and an important factor in a school’s recruitment and retention efforts.
Destinations that Connect the School Community
For students who live on campus, student unions provide space outside their dorm rooms to socialize or study. For commuters, they are a home away from home, a place that they can feel comfortable in between classes and connected to the campus community. Even beyond the immediate student population, student unions serve future students and alumni as well. For prospective students, it’s a chance to showcase the best that your school has to offer, and is oftentimes a point of origin for other activities, such as new student orientation and convocations. For alumnus, it is often where reunions and events are held, and a chance for a school to nurture continued support from their alumni community.
A successful student union establishes connections between other campus facilities, such as academic, recreation, housing, and dining. In addition, student expectations have been evolving, and the variety of amenities modern students expect need to be included in order to keep them in engaged in student life. Your student union environment serves to heighten the student experience you offer as a whole, and should be reflected in the design.
4 Characteristics to That All Great Student Unions have in Common
Differentiated Zones and Functions
In order to support the diverse number of functions students come to the student union for, a variety of spaces, from small-scale quiet study nooks to large, flexible meeting and conference rooms is necessary. In addition, while students want a place to connect socially, a student union should also provide for other aspects of student life, such as providing resources for academic and career success.
While versatile, welcoming, and designed for use by all of the school community and beyond, your student union’s focus should always be to serve the students, first and foremost. For example, at the University of Illinois in Springfield, by concentrating the student life spaces on the formal Quad axis, student life is then emphasized and celebrated, and the students become the ornament of the building.
Openness and Easy Flow
Your student union is an exciting, interactive, and interdisciplinary hub for student-life experiences and your school community, and that means high traffic during peak hours. To help relieve this, an easy flow through the building’s spaces should be considered. In addition, architecture that takes advantage of transparency and highlights pedestrian circulation using strong visual links will be important as well, creating a feeling of openness, dynamism, and enhancing the social nature of the building.
Technology to Support Functionality and Sustainability
Technology is ubiquitous on university campuses today, and student unions have been influenced in many areas relating to technology and social media, but it’s not just the front of house operations that can reap benefits. Building functionality and sustainability have also been greatly influenced and made possible by new technologies. For example, systems now exist that can track composting and recycling, building energy, and water usage, which not only adds to your school’s sustainability efforts, but can also help by providing operational cost savings as well.
Studies have shown that the longer a student is on campus, their chance for academic growth and success is greater. Of course, academics are the primary reason they are at a school, but offering a well-balanced student life means also providing opportunities for social development and preparation for professional life. As digital natives, students entering college today are part of a generation where endless amounts of data can be accessed with a touch of a button. In order to reach these students on terms they can relate with as well as strengthen their connection with your school, we must consider the student experience and how it values and promotes the social aspects of a college life, and a lot of that starts with your student union.