The Power of Good Story, Well Told

What is the story of your University? Is it rich in history and heritage? Are your traditions and culture passed along to each new generation? Ultimately, how can the built-form of your story bring your campus community together, fostering interaction, collaboration and camaraderie?

A successful Student Center envisions and encapsulates the heart of a University by taking the elements and attributes that make it special and turning them into a tool – a physical environment that attracts and builds community and generates a sense of pride and purpose. 

So what does the ideal Student Center look like? The answer is that no two centers are the same-as no two universities’ stories are the same. Each is unique, and to succeed must tell their own story in a distinctive, compelling and heart-felt manner. 

It is key that the University’s story, and its Center, appeal to multiple audiences. Although it may be referenced as a “Student” Center, the truth is that this vital, centric environment should appeal not just to students, but to faculty and staff, university leaders and stakeholders, and alumni and new student prospects. In achieving success, the Center must speak to the whole of the campus community.

What to say? 

Before speaking in program and design, listening is the beginning of the conversation – a true conversation that queries and combines hard-and-fast quantitative programming data with equally important qualitative impressions and insight.

By engaging each end-user group, we begin to understand their wishes, preferences and usability patterns. How is the current Student Center being utilized? What could be done better? What is missing? Programming questions and opportunities abound and can easily result in an extensive laundry list of event spaces, food service amenities, data access points and lounge dimensions. 

But in conjunction with listening, it is imperative to step back and take a look at the Big Picture. How can the Student Center embody the University’s Mission? How can the Center help to achieve the University’s goals? How can a building encourage collaboration and cross-pollination, foster community and camaraderie, and ultimately enable its students’ success? 

The benefit of perspective on detail reveals synergies and relationships. It is not enough to have individual elements within a Student Center. To truly work, elevate and transform, the singular elements must be arranged in intuitive proximity: the overlap of space and function is as important as the spaces themselves. The successful Student Center succeeds on the arrangement of its whole. 

The evolution of a Student Center, from research to programming to design, creates value in process – realizing not just what a University is, but revealing what it wants to be. A University Student Center tells a powerful story, serving, engaging and inspiring while setting a bright path forward.

A Listener’s Guide to Student Center Design 

1. Who are you? As a University, what is your heritage? Your strengths? Your source of pride? Do the built forms of your University accurately reflect its personality and meet your expectations? Is there a tangible sense of identity and community on your campus? 

2. Does the existing Student Center accurately reflect the personality of the University? Do you feel that it brings the University together, contributing to an overall sense of community? Does it play a role in your everyday life? How could a new/renovated Student Center become more integral to the community? 

3. Who does the Student Center currently serve? Does it meet your needs? Who should the new/renovated Student Center serve additionally or better? 

4. Which program elements (services, amenities, organizations) are important to you in a Student Center? What would be on your wish list? What type of service or space would prompt you to use the Student Center more often? 

5. Who do you intersect with when you are in the Student Center? Which program elements (services, amenities and organizations) make sense to be in close proximity for convenience and to create synergies between new and like people, promoting an invaluable exchange of thoughts and ideas? 

6. Where else on campus do you feel a sense of community? Do you use different gathering places for different reasons? Do you intersect with different people depending on location?

7. Why is your Student Center’s location critical to its usability? Could it be better located or situated?

The answers to these questions help to shape an ideal combination of “blue sky” and pragmatic needs and critically set a path forward towards success. When paired with taste tests and focus groups, the Listener’s Guide becomes a powerful ally in the programming and design process.