Traditionally, student unions have been the campus destination of choice for students to find support, whether academic or personal, and form social and cultural connections. But as colleges and universities strive to meet challenges in enrollment and student retention, they need to look beyond union buildings, often tucked away somewhere on campus, and focus on supporting established students.
Enter welcome centers and gateway buildings, which complement union buildings by making new students feel at home on campus and also engaging with the community surrounding a campus. Buildings conceived as welcoming campus gateways are by no means new concepts in academic typologies, but an increased awareness of them indicates a shifting mindset in campus planning, led partly by the recognition and celebration of student diversity.
Looking beyond academics, higher education institutions are considering initiatives on campus and in their communities that acknowledge students’ socioeconomic circumstances and barriers to belonging. Perhaps more than any other building on campus, a welcome center/gateway building is ideally positioned to serve students as individuals and as members of a larger community—especially when they relate to similarly inclusive spaces campuswide. So how do architects shape their thinking about these unique campus resources to help colleges and universities achieve their vision of community service and education?
Hospitality and welcoming
On the surface, the term “welcome center” evokes an image of a visitor bureau run by a local tourism office or chamber of commerce. The comparison between commercial and academic welcome centers, while obviously not wholly precise, brings out an essential idea applicable to both: hospitality. It may not be the most common word used to describe a campus space that, after all, is not a hotel or restaurant, but “hospitality” delineates the difference between a place that simply tells people, “It’s OK for you to be here,” and a place that says, “I want and welcome you here.”
To be truly welcoming, to serve as a bridge between a campus and its community, a welcome center has to be a hospitable place where all are welcome as they are in a safe and visibly equitable setting. For architects, a good starting point before design is to contextualize a student’s academic experience within their overall participation in campus life. Designers should look beyond the academic experience to see how students are personally growing within a critical transitional period in their lives. It helps to think of students in terms of affinity groups, which are not simply clubs organized around a shared interest or activity, but groups of people who share common, often intersectional, identities or traits along with an associated set of perspectives and needs.
The pre-design phase of a project is the ideal time to explore campus affinity groups and how their needs influence the design of welcoming, hospitable spaces. Although it’s tempting to give into the excitement of design work as soon as possible, taking the time for methodical outreach more than proves its value not just in terms of outcome but as a collaborative process that yields solutions that more accurately express students’ lived experiences.
From facilitated discussions to interactive exercises in which participants create models that express spaces where they would feel welcome, properly conducted outreach efforts that are inclusive have the added benefit of uncovering new insights. For example, race and the extent of physical ability are prominent in discussions about designing for diversity—but what about how spaces affect introverts versus extroverts? In our emphasis of social and communal spaces, it’s easy for designers—especially gregarious ones—to overlook the needs of individuals who require greater opportunities for self-care via quiet, personal spaces away from crowded public areas.
Working at Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, Calif., to replace an outdated 1940s welcome center on its main campus, Anderson Brulé Architects strived to develop an understanding of affinity groups. These groups are scattered across the campus, occupying “leftover” space. It is not easy to find them, nor do these spaces offer any indication of who occupies them.
Through conversations with representatives of these various affinity groups, designers came to understand how ownership of a space with a clearly expressed presence contributes to the legitimacy of a group, both with the institution and among their peers. Empathy walks--listening firsthand about the limitations and benefits of each group’s situation—was especially insightful. Equally valuable was understanding the importance each group placed in community context – e.g., by sharing a building – as well as having its own distinct, functioning space.
Not just buildings
Hospitality and welcoming are not the only emergent characteristics from the combination of a building’s parts. In fact, there are opportunities within the parts themselves to encompass both the student academic experience and other essential dimensions of campus life within a conceptual framework of “welcoming” and “hospitality.”
A new Academic Commons at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, Calif., offers a good demonstration. It is not a gateway building to the campus like the welcome center in Monterey, but the new building was nevertheless specifically conceived to meet the college’s goals of enhancing student matriculation, retention, and performance. As a whole, it provides a diversity of academic learning spaces, for both in-person and distance learning, supported by features such as smartboards and a robust infrastructure for multimedia technologies.
What makes the project stand out, however, is the use of interstitial spaces such as hallways. Typically, hallways and other circulation paths emerge out of the spatial arrangement of key spaces, serving as efficient routes between areas of the building. But what if these spaces were able to offer more? What if these interstitial spaces could, in a way classrooms alone cannot, contribute to creating an inviting environment that engages students and encourages them to want to be on campus?
With this core question driving the thinking about the project, designers set out to explore how to enrich the use of spaces that might otherwise be one-dimensional, all the while considering how to fulfill the college’s student engagement strategies. The outcome provides a variety of seating areas and meeting spaces, some equipped with smartboards, in which students, faculty and staff can take advantage of spontaneous encounters to deepen their studies, socialize or simply enjoy moments of rest.
The takeaway from the Monterey and Antelope Valley projects is twofold. First, they confirm the value in transforming design from a black-box model, in which an architect is given input from which to output a solution, to a democratized process that engages the people who will be using the facility. The means really do justify the ends, as user groups more easily embrace solutions when they help develop them rather than solutions offered to them in a top-down manner. Second, the inclusive concepts of “welcoming” and “hospitality” offer benefits not only in terms of specific buildings but also as a culture that shapes an entire campus.
A welcome center may serve as gateway to an academic institution’s campus, services, and programs, but it is ultimately validated by the ability of other campus buildings to embody this same culture. Taken together, collaborative design and an inclusive culture create places that are personally and socially meaningful. This directly strengthens efforts to attract, retain and support a diverse student body on its learning journey.
Mark Schoeman is a design principal and leadership team board chair at Anderson Brulé Architects, a San José-based firm that provides services in strategic planning, architecture and interiors to the education, community and health & wellness markets.