Miller Hull

Perspectives. Equity Moment: Elevating Student Success

1-19-2024 | Perspectives

Over the last few years, there has been a considerable investment in understanding the factors that contribute to a student’s success on college and university campuses. What do students need to thrive, not only in their academic journeys, but in their social lives on campuses? How can students find a well-rounded sense of wellness that extends to their physical wellbeing? Their emotional health?

As designers, when we are invited into a community, it is our responsibility to work with human beings to identify these needs and to explore how design and physical space can begin to support them. Through our work, we are finding that of the many components that affect a student’s ability to flourish, none perhaps are as influential as the feeling of belonging. No matter how much a student may devote themselves to their studies, if they don’t feel at ease in their environments and included among their peers, they will not be in a position to succeed.

Defining Student Success
Inclusion plays a vital role in the wellbeing of students, and universities all over the country are devoting resources to enhance equity on their campuses. When engaged in higher education projects, we see the effort and stand ready to support campuses as they strive to realize a more inclusive vision. However, we do not claim to have all the answers or to be acquainted with every possible perspective. Rather, we enter each project with humility and transparency; we have the tools to help, we just need to understand what is trying to be built and how each particular institution defines student success?

Often, the issues that campuses face surrounding inclusivity are unique to the institution’s student body, which is why it is critical that design teams and students work together alongside colleges and universities to understand the needs of current and future students as well as who is being marginalized, and identify how these persons or groups can be included in the design process to ensure program spaces and design guidelines are set up inclusively from the get go.

Much of this emphasis on equity and inclusion stems from the awareness students are bringing to their administrations, speaking up about the many spaces on campus that are not welcoming to all. As this becomes a bigger topic of conversation, and more and more people are questioning and exploring what it means to be inclusive and welcoming, there is a greater drive from colleges and universities to invest in the processes and strategies that are necessary to formulate a proper equity approach, which includes consideration of black, indigenous, and people of color; veterans; LGBTQIA2+ persons; people with disabilities; and students facing or experiencing homelessness.

Creating Spaces of Connection
Research continues to show that when students develop meaningful relationships with faculty, staff members, or older students, they show up with an even greater commitment to their studies, and in today’s post-pandemic world, the need for guidance and human connection is more crucial than ever. Campuses are rising to this challenge in terms of the new kinds of spaces they are providing to enable the kind of mentorship that is so deeply desired — spaces where students of all years can mix and socialize informally, observe each other, and learn through osmosis.

Consolidating Programs, Blending Disciplines
Campuses are also taking a holistic look at where services and programs are located, envisioning the potential of clustering programs together, creating visible and accessible nodes of activity (not spread all over campus and behind closed doors), and de-siloing academic faculty so they are closer to student areas and more available for informal interactions. One strategy to enhance the feeling of belonging on campus that we’ve observed on several campuses involves actively pulling together student resources and learning spaces, blending that environment of learning and accessing services.

Our recent Health Sciences Education Building at the University of Washington as well as the University of Arizona Student Success District both leveraged their investment in the consolidation of resources and multidisciplinary studies to create a new kind of environment for students grounded in support and collaboration. Making sure that buildings and campuses have spaces for impromptu conversations and faculty spaces that aren’t tucked into unknown corners of buildings and spread all over can be critical to the formation of successful relationships. Each campus we work with has a unique approach to supporting their students, however, one element rings true regardless of the institution: hidden resources, poor wayfinding, and spatial features that act as inhospitable “gates” on campuses do not, in fact, contribute to student success, particularly for BIPOC students and students with disabilities.

Accelerating Student Success at WSU
At the end of 2022, we completed a Feasibility and Programming Study at Washington State University that was intended to help accelerate the University’s action plan in its support of student success with spaces that:

a) enable accessible and active group learning
b) provide easy access to student services, and
c) facilitate student and faculty interaction with a healthy mix of inclusive, easy-to-find
informal collaboration and learning spaces.

The team that followed (ZGF and Lease Crutcher Lewis) in their full design and construction of the new Schweitzer Engineering Hall, are continuing to build on the work we did in the Programming Study, where our stakeholder discussions around student success laid the groundwork for the kind of universally responsive spaces that students want and need.

Programming included a robust outreach strategy, offering us to connect with a diverse group of students through open houses, small group discussions, and project meetings. Throughout, we worked with the University to really tackle how space could support the future of student success, equity, and inclusion, weaving the following questions into every conversation with each group to build a successful program:

  • What is student success at WSU Voiland College and how can it be measured?
  • What are common structural and motivational barriers to students?
  • What are some strategies WSU employs to help students “feel they belong?”
  • What are the issues specific to under-represented students that need to be addressed (BIPOC students, first-generation college students, students of lower socio-economic status, students facing homelessness, adult learners, etc.)?

Every project offers us another opportunity to explore how design and physical space can aid in student success. By knowing what questions we should be asking, having examples at our fingertips of ways that other institutions are handling inclusivity and support services, and by operating with humility and willingness to be constantly learning and shifting our own mindsets about individual views and intersectionality, we can be helping to positively shape the future of students on campuses.