What makes a student union the place where students want to be?

· by Ben Michalak

Outside academic buildings, residence halls, and offices, there aren’t many spaces on campus students can call their own. There may be small-group study spaces and lounges in academic buildings, and residence halls may offer programming and intimate settings for community growth, but students need a place on campus where they can gather, host organizational meetings, and enjoy entertainment and other recreational activities. 

Student unions are the ideal space for this. They act as multi-purpose hubs for engagement that provide a range of student services and activities. 

As a student engagement professional, it’s important to optimize your union spaces in a way that draws students in. It isn’t enough to offer the space; you need to make it a place where students want to be. In this blog post, we’ll share a few of the winning strategies that make student unions magnets of activity, engagement, and development.

Space Design Matters

No matter the phase of design, you should always strive for your student union to be inclusive, segmented, and dynamic. There shouldn’t be any questions in a student’s mind as to how and where they can access special programming (i.e., themed activities, concerts, or other forms of entertainment), professional development tools, or any other community resources. This may sound easier said than done, but as long as you make a few scalable considerations your union will be well on its way to fit these criteria. 

> Inclusive Student Unions: First, a union needs to be inclusive. Accessibility and equitable design are key aspects of student union design that need to be considered. Not only does this involve accommodations for students with disabilities, but also the nature of your union’s offerings. Your resources and events need to be inclusive in their reach to students of all backgrounds. 

> Segmented Student Unions: A segmented union isn’t complicated. Each part is differentiated by use. For example, in a three-floor student union,  the first floor may be reserved for professional development offices, student mail services, and multicultural spaces. The second may have communal study spaces, a coffee shop, a college bookstore, and entertainment spaces (i.e., a stage, ballroom, or larger conference space). The third floor may house the student center offices, more study spaces, and student organization meeting spaces. Segmenting helps students successfully navigate your union and allows for a variety of spaces to exist within.

> Dynamic Student Unions: By extension, student unions should accommodate a variety of student organizations by providing dynamic spaces that fit their needs and preferences. For example, a flexible event space might host lectures, performances, workshops, and social gatherings, while also being easily reconfigured for different seating arrangements or setups. Modular elements like movable partitions and pieces of furniture help enable customization and accommodate diverse programming needs, while optimizing space utilization without the need for costly renovations or redesigns. 

Thoughtful space design is essential for creating an inclusive, welcoming, and functional student union that meets the diverse needs of today’s college students. By prioritizing dynamic and adaptable design decisions, student unions can become hubs of campus life where students want to spend their time and connect with their peers. 

Take a Student-Centered Approach

The success of a student union hinges on student involvement and collaboration. Engaging students in the planning, management, and programming of the union fosters a sense of ownership and belonging. It’s essential to provide opportunities for students to contribute ideas, participate in decision-making processes, and offer feedback on the union’s offerings and services. 

This goes hand-in-hand with the earlier points on space design and segmentation. Even though all student organizations are different, listening to their needs and applying them to your union spaces demonstrates your commitment to the student experience. If they aren’t volunteering ideas, you can solicit input through surveys, focus groups, and advisory committees. Approaching student engagement this way can help you identify emerging trends, address potential issues, and adapt to evolving needs. 

It’s common for unions to maintain a student staff, with certain students serving in managerial roles and others in specialized positions aimed at programming and engagement. These types of opportunities further allow students to develop a connection to their union through your cultivation of leadership and professional skills. Not only is the union a place to relax, study, and have fun, but it can also be a place to gain real world experience and transferable skills. 

Overall, a student-centered approach ensures that your student union will remain responsive, inclusive, and impactful in meeting the needs and aspirations of your university’s student body. By prioritizing student involvement, empowerment, and development, student unions can cultivate vibrant campus communities that lend legitimacy to their function and make them a place where students want to be. 

Technology Integration and Continuous Improvement

Technology is a core component of today’s college experience. Students use personal technology (i.e., laptops and phones) to complete assignments and access specific software for their classes. However, there are critical resources that may prove costly to the average student, such as pieces of technology that fit more into the “want” category than “need” (i.e., a Meta Quest 2 VR Headset or a Nintendo Switch). Finding ways to provide access to these is a great way to draw students to your union. Furthermore, your students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from technology–you can too! Technology can be integrated into a student union to promote deeper engagement between students and their union. 

Technology integration can bring newer, more efficient ways to connect with students. Using virtual event platforms and mobile apps to streamline the announcement of new activities will get more students in your union. By leveraging technology, you can reach a wider audience and ensure that information is readily available to students, regardless of their location or schedule. 

Another issue student union professionals occasionally face is resource management. For a union, resources can range from events, room reservations, and physical resources (i.e., board games, video games, or recreation equipment). There are many digital platforms available to make reservation and event scheduling easy and accessible for students looking to engage in small group activities or as a part of a club or organization. 

For physical resources, you may turn to putting student employees at desks to check out inventory. However, automated rental platforms like RecRe are perfect ways to optimize your union’s resource management methods. Not only does RecRe help get inventory in the hands of students faster, but it assists with another often overlooked aspect of student union technology integration: data collection. 

Data collection is a must-have when it comes to continuously finding ways to optimize your student union. Understanding new trends is crucial to identifying areas of success and improvement. RecRe collects data on student engagement and inventory usage that can help you leverage technology to improve your union’s efficiency. 

Our campus partners at Auburn University deployed RecRe in student centers across campus and saw success across all metrics. If you’re interested in learning more about their approach to RecRe, click here to access their campus success story.