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How can student unions attract a digital generation that craves face time?

Mix it up with a focus on food, health and wellness, and interaction

By Ray Maggi, Philadelphia, PA

In my first blog in this series I took a look at some defining characteristics of the new generation of students – Gen Z arriving on campus, and in our student union. In my second blog we delved into cultural cues that inform design of our student union. In this third and final blog in the series, we look at programming ideas that respond to this surprising digital generation.

Transcript of the video follows
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<p>Raymond:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Well I think the type of spaces, the programing spaces that you're talking about, the places to unplug, we are getting requests. What we're seeing some more of lately are, I'll say multi-denominational or non-denominational, depending on how you want to define it, meditation spaces or spaces to come together in essence. In some cases, like at Hope College, it is a chapel. It's defined as a chapel. In other case it's very non-denominational, but the intent is it's a meditation space, an introspective space, a space for reflection, or a space for smaller groups to come together for use in that capacity.</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 it's interesting with some of the statistics that you both presented about this next group's religious practices and how we're hearing from student affairs or student like, &quot;Hey, we need the need for a non-denominational space to be used in that capacity. A flexible space that can be service, can be worship, can be meditation, can be used for a variety of things throughout the day for programming events, as you suggest.&quot;</p> <p>Speaker 2:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; You're hitting on a point that we found in a lot of the things we were studying, is this idea that bringing all of these kinds of spaces together, in which services around campus could be, rather than retail. This idea of bringing a little bit of the health into the student union. Bring the rec center. We recommended fitness classes around lunchtime, so that students are again coming there. It isn't your traditional student union programming. You're bringing in rec programming.</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; Would that help contribute to a healthier lifestyle and make it available? Students, again, do they want to walk across campus, go to a fitness class, then come and get their food? They don't want to go to all these places. How do you make it so that they're getting their services? Not necessarily the retail. Not necessarily being able to buy a t-shirt and get a haircut in the same place, but being able to get a health check-up, go over to yoga, and then pick up a wrap on their way out of the same space, is gonna be really, really crucial.</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 do want to go back. I think you asked a really good question about this idea about the Facetime thing. You were talking about your daughter with Facetime and studying, in tandem. Some of the things we found in our study, around dating specifically, is that people were very appreciative of Facetime, but that did not replace personal one on one time. If there's a possibility to be able to gather in real life, that was always the preference over Facetime or Skype.</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; Just keeping that in mind, that we want to create spaces where students can still gather face to face. They still want to hang out with their friends. At the end of the day, it's not fun hanging out over Skype. You might be able to study next to someone over Skype, but when you want to hang out with them, you're, &quot;I'm eating a burger.&quot; &quot;I'm eating a burger on my end, too.&quot; That's just not where we're at, thankfully.</p> <p>Speaker 3:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; It's just not the same.</p> <p>Speaker 2:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; We're not there yet. They want to hang out together still.</p> <p>Speaker 3:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I think my personal student union experience as an undergrad was very progressive in the sense that it wasn't, as you said, mollified. It was a few restaurants, but this huge living room that we could move all this furniture. The student union was the place that you went when you didn't want to go study and you didn't have to go to class, but you didn't want to go home. There's always someone, again I went to a smaller school, but there's always someone that you knew in student union that you could just plop down and have that gathering time. Then maybe it turned into you were working on your homework together or you had a student group gather 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; I think the real point of it was, it was a huge, big living room. They would stream big events. Right now, I still keep up with the reunion program. They're doing presidential debates where the students would gather and watch that together. They have all these huge TVs that they would either bring in or already have. Then they would just make it, bring your own pillow.</p> <p>Speaker 2:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Make an event. Yeah.</p> <p>Speaker 3:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; To the presidential debate kind of thing. Find your place to sit down. They had food options, as well, that if you wanted to grab a bite you could. It wasn't centralized. I also think about this idea of wellness. If students are coming to college campuses with more mental health issues, is there a way that we could utilize a place where they gather and they feel comfortable, almost a home-like feature, to provide some sort of counseling services that removes the stigma of day to day, just keeping up with your mental health. Whether that is guided meditations or checking in with a counselor. Is that something that is a service that we can remove stigma because it's just commonplace and it's in a place that they feel comfortable in.</p> <p>Speaker 4:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I think that would be extremely helpful. Yeah.</p> <p>Speaker 3:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; We look into services of, even taking therapy and mental health services to texting. We know that we can't replace that face time. If we're talking about a mental health or wellness center, can that be another element beyond just getting a health checkup or going to yoga? Can they connect with, potentially, a counselor or someone to talk about their problems, between my classes or at lunch?</p>

It’s taken a long time, but you finally managed to move all the paperwork, practices, and processes of campus to online websites, portals, and apps. Phew! Just in time too. The next generational wave of students is breaking on campus—and this cohort favors and is determined to meet face-to-face with counselors, admissions, faculty, and friends.

We’re now seeing a bit of a pendulum shift from accessing everything online and digital back to human experience and interaction. Contrary to common perceptions of Generation Z, they crave face time. They may do it with a cell phone in their hand, but still…we need to ask ourselves how this subtle but significant behavioral change help us determine the best amenities for today’s student union?

As architects, planners, and designers, we are often asked about today’s design trends. What do we see in our practice across the country? Where is real innovation occurring in the student union? We are always looking for new ideas and new ways to express a client’s needs, wants, and goals in built form. But if you always chase the trends, you might forever be playing catch-up. Consider the fundamentals. The student union is a place to come together; a place for students to feel included, hopeful, and connected. Now, how do we build that?

The party is in the kitchen
Food venues are the low hanging fruit (pardon the pun). They are often the core of the student union, from all-you-care-to-eat venues to individual retail food outlets. Food venues can also be destination micro-restaurants with open air dining, or café-like seating that overlooks student quads, walkways, or interior streetscapes. At the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire W.R. Davies Student Center, the Delany dining room functions as an upscale food venue for students, staff, and faculty. Students can mingle with friends, professors, or even their families in this unique space.

How else can we create an enticing experience for Gen Z? They love to take selfies and pictures documenting their life experiences…right down to what they’re eating.  At your student union, consider the community of the foodie culture. Can an instructional teaching kitchen serve as a programming venue? Can it be a way to bring students together around instructional cooking lessons and events? At West Chester University(WCU) in Pennsylvania we are designing a faculty dining room that converts into instructional cooking facilities after hours. The cross generational appeal can provide serendipitous face time opportunities that Gen Z students seek.

Health + Wellness
Gen Z students seek a healthy lifestyle, both in mind and body. Our student unions can embrace a holistic approach to students’ overall well-being through programming and offerings.

One way is to offer different services Gen Z students are seeking. We’ve witnessed a trend of counseling moving back into the student union. As we discussed earlier in our series, Generation Z is arriving on campus with more mental health issues and concerns than any other generation. Offer both individual and group spaces and let the counseling suite become more present, visible, and open.

Exercise technology has changed the way we go about our days. Inspired by digital badging, students and adults alike are hitting 10,000 steps a day to burn those extra calories. It’s natural progression to see recreation and fitness classes returning to the student center. Consider simple changes: create a yoga studio or fitness rooms where less specialized space and equipment is required. Meanwhile a beverage bar or snack counter help encourage social interactions before and after classes.

Accessible green roofs and gardens can be another great way to connect students. Consider the opportunities that lie within the overlap between nutrition, health and wellness, and food culture. At WCU’s new Commons building we are designing an accessible green roof with gardening spaces for students to grow vegetables and herbs for nutrition and cooking programs.   

There is no greater theater for students than other students. And even in the face down, smartphone culture, students seek out the company of other students. Student life spaces today are going great lengths to choreograph student interaction. The “learning stair” has become the new landscape on which students gather, eat, and hang out. It takes advantage of traditionally underutilized staircases and transforms it into a new social experience. The action of ascending or descending from floor to floor now becomes a means to meet and interact with others. Is it a new idea? Not at all. The Spanish Steps in Rome have been a social epicenter for centuries.

Student unions have often been the main place to get information on campus. Perhaps the main desk served as the campus-wide information depot. Information is now readily available to anyone with a phone, but what if I want someone to show me how? Is your information desk becoming more like the Genius Bar at the Apple store? Are students out from behind the desk to interact with others? Is the information desk simply a place to get information, or is it truly a campus concierge?

Student unions are continuously evolving. Today’s student union construction or renovation projects often require years of programming, planning, and construction. It may take three to five years to go from project inception to fruition. By the time you open the doors, students may have moved on to other types of places, spaces, and technologies. In today’s social network, what is trending today is gone tomorrow. It all boils down to one concept – the human experience. So stick with the fundamentals, and consider different ways of blending, blurring, and overlapping social conditions to create unique and engaging experiences for your students. 

Related item: Higher education design

The completes our three-part series on What does Gen Z want in their student unions? Mark your calendars and visit us at the upcoming Association of College Unions International(ACUI) conference in Philadelphia March 19-23rd!

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

Also from Ray:

At WCU’s new Commons building we are designing an accessible green roof with gardening spaces for students to grow vegetables and herbs for nutrition and cooking programs.

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