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What does Gen Z want in their student union design?

The first wave of students born into the digital age is looking for some surprising things on campus

by Ray Maggi, principal (Philadelphia, PA)

We’ve waved goodbye to Millennials, and Gen Z students (born 1995-2010) are now flocking to higher education campuses. What changes might that herald for our campus buildings? Let’s take the student union, once the epicenter of student social life. How have we adapted our student unions to meet this new generation’s needs and aspirations? Are we evaluating and discussing the types of spaces that will attract Generation Z students (and, hint, their parents)? You and your staff could spend countless hours trying to evolve your union for this generation of students, but with an average attention span of eight seconds, Gen Z has moved on in the time it took you to read this paragraph.

We wish there was a magical one-size-fits-all solution to planning, organizing, and building spaces for Gen Z students; however, there are some defining characteristics of this generation that may offer clues to the types of spaces they will find engaging.

An architect, a university director, and two authors explore space types that attract Generation Z students to your student union. Part 1/5

Transcript of the video follows
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<p>Giancarlo Brugnolo:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I would say, for me, where I see most of our usage is in those common areas, not so much dedicated study rooms, but more of our living rooms, if you will. Looking at the common areas where students can congregate and just sit and lounge. Other places would be like our cafeteria. Again, that open space where students can come, kind of be, as you guys alluded to, by themselves, but then still be able to talk to other people and work with other people. Those are the areas that I see the most common and heavily-used spaces. A lot of our meeting rooms are used by faculty and staff now, more so than our students have, so that's been really interesting to see from our perspective.</p> <p>Meghan Grace:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I think what we talked about was this idea that space and time are a little bit fluid for this group of students in the sense that, again, they might be on line, but they need to talk to their neighbor quickly, so moving chairs ... like these are great. You can move these around, you could sit in a circle, but you could also sit in the corner and relax and do something on your own. This idea of multi-purpose, fluid of space, but also the amenities would just be, are they able to connect online and provide services both in person, but then online at the same time, so I think it's this idea of fluidity of ... It isn't just in one space, the only place you can get it.</p> <p>Dr. Seemiller:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Yeah. I think, to add to that, if we go back, student union, by definition, what it was created to be was the living room of campus. I think what happened over the years is it turned into the kitchen, the study room. It became a house, right? You had to go to separate spaces to do separate things. If we can get back to the ideas that students want to learn and eat and socialize in the same space without having to move seats three times in the same area, could there be something that feels like maybe food court around and a lot of moveable seating on the inside where it feels more like Starbucks, not plastic chairs, where they are invited and welcome to stay for a while. That would be kind of the essence. Then, we think about amenities, too. I remember many student unions, they have bowling alleys, right? Some still do. Is this idea of what is it that they need to get in a student union that they can't get online or otherwise? What are those services that they critically need that we need to have there?</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; We've talked about are there things that maybe would be beneficial to be in the student union, like we're talking about maybe an extension of health services or campus health having a 24-hour urgent care there. Why would they need to come to the student union other than, in many cases, to get food? We need to give them a reason to come there. Unfortunately, in doing programming in the student union for 10 years, programming didn't draw them there. It was the food that drew them there, and then we got them into the program. How do we get them there with things that they couldn't otherwise get online or in the near vicinity of campus that's offered in much more extended hours than what currently happens.</p>

Face time, not FaceTime
Contrary to Millennials, Gen Z students crave face time. They seek the type of one-on-one interactions that the Millennials eschewed for online interactions. How can we fulfill their desire for human interaction while providing an engaging experience? Create it!

We were recently involved in the programming and planning of the new Fresno State Student Union. Fresno State sought increased faculty/student engagement, and set out to make happen with a new Faculty Development Center (FDC) within the union. Here, faculty attend seminars, workshops, and classes to develop their skills with new and evolving technologies. But what’s incredibly unique? They flipped the traditional notion of a classroom. In the FDC, tech-savvy Gen Z students teach!

In your student union, here are some ideas you may want to consider for creating space that encourages interaction.

  • Student-faculty reciprocating teaching and support areas
  • Create a cozy family room space for students and faculty to relax and receive comforts of home
  • Ditch the digital directory! Offer a friendly smiling face to welcome students and visitors. Talking to a real person goes a long way in today’s world

Related item: Higher education design

Mother (and father) know best
Another shift in Gen Z culture is how they view their parents as trusted advisors and “copilots” for their life decisions. When these students begin to search for their future college or university, you can bet their parents will be right beside them every step of the way. Is your student union equipped to accommodate the whole family?

  • Consider utilizing large private meeting spaces to accommodate the entire family during visits
  • Create a pre-function area for your large gathering/presentation space so parents can remain active during events and orientation
  • Host an event in the lobby area and personalize it for would-be students and their family

When a group of students arrive for a tour, your facility will need to accommodate their family for the duration of the presentation or program. Spaces that are inclusive of parent co-pilots will appeal to Gen Z students.

Hear our panelists discuss how the underlying fundamentals of the student union still serve the needs of Gen Z. Part 2/5

Transcript of the video follows
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<p>Raymond Maggi:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; We talked a little bit about this the other day. We were talking about the upcoming event, sort of what was going to happen, and I think we touched on some of the points earlier in our presentations before this event and an interesting point that you brought up about how the students are looking for face time. I think what we're seeing with some of the unions as they're moving forward is some of the types of- I don't know if I'd call them services but functions moving back in where there are face to face encounters, counseling for one, health and wellness programs moving back into the union or maybe they had gone a different route.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; An example that we gave earlier, the Faculty Development Center to me is a fascinating one because I think it's an institution in this case who's challenged us architecturally to go in a new direction because I think they're really in tune with what's happening in their campus and the generation of students who are there, who are seeking that additional face time but also, and maybe it's the sort of side bar thing that you talk about where they're actually tutoring. They're tutoring professors in how to use technology and as a new type of function in a student union, I think it's really fascinating.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; To the point about relevancy, do you think it's a point where the pendulum has just gone so far in one direction, like I sort of jokingly say this, the mall-ification of the student center. You had mentioned gamification I think earlier for one of the tasks, but the mollification where for us, maybe as Generation X growing up, we sought out a student center that was more like the shopping mall, and now you can see the demise of the shopping mall. Has the pendulum gone so far and now it's coming back the other way? I think fundamentally, in some ways, that definition from 1914 about the student union as a unifying force is still relevant, very relevant, but now how it's executed in terms of spaces and amenities has just changed. We've gone so far in this direction. Now we're going to start swinging back in a different way. I don't know if that's accurate or if we're at a stopping point or just a turning point.</p> <p>Dr. Corey Seemiller:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I think to jump in when you talk about this pendulum swinging, I think you're spot on. I think we've moved from this mall-like thing and now we're realizing that students aren't going to be doing those things that we anticipated and it's swinging back to be this living room again. The thing that will continue to differentiate this union, I mean I hate to say it is the food offerings. There are some academic schools or buildings that might have a Starbucks or something in them, whatever they might have, but for the most part, if you want food, you go to the student union. I don't see that changing necessarily anytime soon but I think it has to be a place where you want to sit and stay because if you're going to get your food and then you're going back to another building to sit and relax because it's more comfortable, that's where the problem is.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I think student unions are incredibly relevant, not in the structure that they are offered today. I think we have this big argument about five years ago when I was at the student union about whether or not we need to continue to have a room with pool tables because students have pool tables in their residence halls and nobody was really playing pool anymore, and then there's a bunch of outsiders who would come in and play pool. It was like, &quot;Do we take up this precious space?&quot; We turned it into a gathering space and it was awkward at best because it still had a pool table in it and the question was what do we do. We changed it into a gaming center where we had a big TV and they could game. That was very short-lived because now you game in your own space and on your own phone.</p> <p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; We keep trying to catch up with the entertainment and I'm not sure that that's the prize we want to go after. I think that really the heart of it is going back to the roots of the student union and saying this is where people need to gather to be able to learn, to talk, to socialize, to make friends, to get something to eat, to relax, to take a break from their academic buildings but we have shoved a bunch of stuff in and now we're finding that it's taking up space and people are not going to it. At least that was my experience working with a student union.</p> <p>Raymond Maggi:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Yeah, it's interesting. I think you said like the prize or the end game is what are you chasing. I think if you're constantly chasing the latest trend, you'll never catch up but if what you're chasing is the underlying fundamental nature of what it means to come together and how you do that, the architectural execution of that, it's going to change. The student union 20 years ago was a nice glass fishbowl seating area, sunken lounge and then now it's a learning stair. How we bring people together, as long as you're chasing I think the fundamental, it will always be relevant. If you chase the architectural trend, I'm not sure you'll ever- you'll catch up but everything will have already moved on.&nbsp;</p>

Digital detox
Once you get Gen Z students into your union, you can guarantee they’ll be checking their phones to see what is happening elsewhere. It’s not because they don’t find the space interesting. Rather, they tend to suffer from FOMO—fear of missing out. The stresses of social media, 24-hour connectivity, and their history of exposure to high-stress life events have significantly increased this generation’s level of anxiety. Counseling, health, and wellness spaces are once again appearing in the student union to provide Gen Z with the services they seek.

  • Establish ‘quiet’ spaces for student to unplug. They seek a space that is defined by disconnecting with technology. To them, this is the only time disconnecting is acceptable. Cell phone and other media devices are turned off in favor of quiet respite
  • Define meditation spaces and non-denomination gathering spaces to provide the means for students to refocus themselves throughout the day and evening

It’s important for Gen Z students to have a student union that will support, reflect, and empower a holistic, healthy lifestyle.  

Do what you love, love what you do
Gen Z is a lot like their Gen X parents. Growing up in a depressed economy, they inherited a strong work ethic and an optimistic, entrepreneurial point of view. They want to control their economic conditions; Gen Z is the generation of the “side hustle.”

Everyone has something they’re doing on the side to support their studies, spending, or career objectives. Technology has enabled students to create and develop entire businesses through their phones and apps. 72% of Gen Z teens want to convert their hobbies into a full time jobs. Give them the space to try! Some simple renovation ideas could be:

  • Convert flexible rooms along a public corridor into entrepreneurial spaces for student run businesses. These students value real world learning experiences and the student union can be the forum in which they apply and test their knowledge and ideas
  • Create a retail marketplace for student startups
  • Reconfigure small lounge spaces into inspirational incubator spaces

As you execute any renovations in response to this generational shift, remember to share. Gen Z is an on-demand generation, but building projects can take a long time to implement. They appreciate transparency and openness, so keep them up to date on your progress. Share on social media any planning sessions you have with students. Video and photo document the progress of the renovation projects on social media. Students will see immediate progress, and understand your space is evolving to meet their unique needs.

Planning for a generational shift is never easy, but following these key cues, you’ll be on your way creating a student union that speaks to this generation!

Watch for our next blog on this topic soon. We’ll be discussing budgeting for these projects and how it can impact the Gen Z student. And watch for us at the upcoming Association of College Unions International (ACUI), March 19-23 in Philadelphia!

For more on this topic, I also invite people to read, Generation Z Goes to College, by Dr. Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace

Ray specializes in the planning, design and development of student life facilities within Stantec’s dedicated Student Life Studio. Ray actively participates in national conferences on education, often speaking on topics related to the design and construction of campus facilities.

They tend to suffer from FOMO—fear of missing out. The stresses of social media, 24-hour connectivity, and their history of exposure to high-stress life events have significantly increased this generation’s level of anxiety.

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