Hawk Life with Laurie–March 27, 2017

Creating welcoming spaces for our students—in and out of the classroom

Building Quote

As many of you may know, I have dabbled in the space arena at UND for the past several years.  My space portfolio began with the collaboration with students to envision the building that is now the Wellness Center.  From there I went on to serve on the Wilkerson Commons project and the McCannel Hall and Chester Fritz Library renovation committees.  I co-chaired the University’s Master Planning committee and served on the Space Management Committee.  Through my appointments on these various projects, one thing continuously has bubbled to the surface: in order for students to realize their full potential, we need to create spaces that meet their needs—both inside and outside the classroom.

The spaces we offer need to be welcoming for students of all capabilities, they must be functional, foster a space for active learning, be versatile and moldable, and they must encourage collaboration.  I think my biggest “Aha!” moment was when we restructured the space in the lower level of the Memorial Union.  Each time I have gone down there since it has been renovated, the space is reconfigured in some way—a clear indication to me that having a space that is flexible to students and suits their needs will encourage active learning and will be a draw for students.  While the change is most noticeable on a physical level, it is the change in human behavior that makes the most difference.  The active learning that it has recreated outside the classroom is invaluable to the success of our university and our students.

While thinking on this topic I also thought it would be appropriate to tap the resources of my colleague, Connie Frazier, the Executive Director of Housing and Dining Services, to lend her knowledge and expertise on the topic and so I asked for her input, as well.  Her entry is below.  Thank you for all you do to make our spaces welcoming for our students!


Much more than a pretty place.

In the rush and hustle of daily human interaction, it is easy to overlook the complex and sometimes subtle interaction that we have with our physical spaces.  We become so accustomed to our surroundings, that we often simply do not take the time to stop and really look at them the way a student, visitor, guest or others do. As a result, we might be missing facilities or space-based cues about how our physical environment and spaces might be helping (or maybe hindering) student engagement and community development.

Drs. James Banning and Carney Strange, leading scholars in the area of campus environmental theory, tell us that facilities and spaces play a significant role in student engagement and success.

First, people must feel a sense of SAFETY and INCLUSION in the space, only then do they begin to ENGAGE with others in the space. As engagement grows, individuals start to feel an emotional connection and attachment to both the place, and to others with whom they share the space. In short, engagement fosters COMMUNITY.

How then, do we utilize our spaces and facilities to promote safety, inclusion, engagement and community? 

One of the simple things we can do to increase our awareness of our physical environment is to take the time to do an “environmental” walk-through. For many of us, a routine “walk-through” of our facilities may mean we are doing inventory, putting the furniture back in place, conducting head counts to assess utilization or doing a general visual sweep of the area to determine cleanliness or some other “maintenance” purpose. The next time you walk through your physical space, take some time to observe it as an environment for student learning and engagement.  Does this space convey a sense of personal and psychological safety? Is it inclusive? Is there evidence of involvement with and in the space? Can you see “community” happening here?  It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes it is as much about what is not present or happening that is the cue. You may find it helpful to ask a colleague to lend a pair of “fresh eyes” and perspective by asking someone from outside our your “environment” to walk through and share their impressions. We need a variety of spaces in our environment to build and maintain balanced communities.

Ten kinds of spaces for supporting security, inclusion, engagement and community.

Welcoming – A space that creates a sense of belonging and security. What is the “tone” of the space? Formal? Informal? Is it an open space or closed space? Does the “tone” match the intended use and audience of the space?

Inclusive – Affirming and supporting all identities.  Are there pictures, symbols, colors, patterns, artifacts or other visible cues that let me know that “people like me” are acknowledged, welcome and included? Are there any of these things present that might say “I am not included.”  

Functional –  Does the facility support the critical tasks and activities intended for the space?

Sociopetal –  Does the space encourage spontaneous human interaction?  Is there room in the circulation areas where I can comfortably step aside to talk as part of an informal encounter (supermarket isle meetings) without “blocking traffic?” 

Flexible – Is it adaptable to multiple purposes and participants? Do all the chairs have arms or are some armless? Are desk or table heights adjustable? Are tablet arms only on the right-hand side?

Esthetic – Does it inspire creativity and uplift the spirit? Are there inspiring artifacts, symbols, interesting art, music, color, pattern, light, text or words?

Reflective – Does it encourage quiet individual imagining and meaning making?  Are there places or spaces where I can find a quiet, calm “sheltering” place to sit and think or reflect?

Regenerative – Does it restore energy and motivation for persisting?  Is there a space that makes me feel energized? Where can I go to mentally or emotionally recharge?

Distinctive –  Is there something about the space that is unique and memorable?

Sustainable – Is the proportion and scale comfortable?

As we continue to engage in discussions about campus master planning, consideration of our physical facilities is especially timely. It is an opportunity for student affairs professionals to contribute to the discussion of campus environments, particularly physical environments, as more than bricks and mortar. Rather, they are the literal building blocks of the student experience.


Let’s go Fighting Hawks!