Elements of College Unions Evident in Campus Community

The college union is a compelling venue to discuss physical space and community for many reasons. Historically, college unions have served as the hearthstone of campus life. Many unions still serve this purpose, although the contemporary union environment typically provides space and programming for various communities of students (and faculty/staff), rather than serving merely as a central gathering space for all. For more than a decade, ACUI’s Facility Design Award of Excellence has recognized excellence in the design of student-centered facilities that support campus community building. A recent dissertation study sought to understand: 1) How do students attending colleges with highly rated union facilities make meaning of community? and 2) What elements of highly rated unions contribute to the development of community on college campuses? 

About the Study 

By 2015, ACUI had recognized 65 facilities designed by 22 architectural firms. Campuses with recognized facilities included public, private, large, small, residential, and commuter, among numerous Carnegie Classifications. In relation to community, the high marks granted to award-winning facilities have emphasized: 1) How the planning and design process involved students and the campus community, 2) Aspects of the campus community’s goals that helped shape the physical layout of the building, and 3) How the uses of space have supported building community and student learning.  

Photo of a Student Center

From the population of 65 facilities, practicality necessitated selecting a smaller sample to use as case studies. Facilities within a day’s drive of the researcher were considered to be a necessary convenience given the need to make multiple site visits; therefore proximity served as the first filter in reducing the population to an appropriate sample size. This process revealed a list of 17 potential facilities. 

Given the significant focus on community in this study, it was important to consider both the residential and size components of each campus. Highly residential campuses, typically smaller in size, are more likely to have a stronger sense of community and belonging among their students. Conversely, nonresidential and very large campuses are more likely to lack some sense of community and belonging, according to Nancy Scholssberg’s work in New Directions for Student Services and George Kuh and Jillian Kinzie’s book Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter. Campuses categorized as residential and medium are more likely to fall in between, and so lend themselves to having more potential to be influenced by intentionally designed community-building facilities. Therefore, college union facilities from medium/residential campuses were selected for this study. 

The final three venues identified for the study have been relabeled as the Porter Memorial Union (PMU) at Alliance State University, C. Shaw Student Center (CSSC) at State University–Concord, and Shirley Bird Student Union (SBSU) at Hearthstone State University. All are traditional, public, midsize, residential campuses. 

The approach for this study was one of basic qualitative research: collecting data via observations, interviews, and document review. Since the subject studied is bounded (the college union facility), and the desired outcomes of this study include informing future practice, a case study approach using the participatory action research method was most appropriate. Including multiple cases required the study of individual cases first, followed by a deeper analysis across cases to allow for greater external validity of the findings.  

Relying on earlier literature related to college unions and community as a starting point, this study sought to identify common elements that exist among highly rated college unions, as well as test common elements/trends identified in previous studies published in The Bulletin. Multiple site visits of college union facilities were conducted, which included interviews with facility managers/directors, focus groups with facility users, a review of documents related to the design and construction of those facilities, and researcher observations.  

Facility directors were essential in identifying and recruiting potential focus group participants. Involvement with the college union as either an employee, volunteer, or student leader was a central criterion for selection. As the central “users” of the college unions being studied, the focus group participants provided firsthand perspectives on how they made meaning of community within their facilities. The inclusion of user groups provided additional rich descriptions and data from a vantage point that could not be provided by facility observations alone. By breaking down and coding patterns of data collected from interviews, focus groups, review of documents, and researcher observations, a valid list of findings that reveal the common community-building techniques utilized by each, and perhaps all, of the facilities studied was identified.  

Making Meaning of Community  

Research Question 1 sought to identify specific ways in which students make meaning of community, most notably in the context of the college union. The data collected provide a window of knowledge into the campus community lived in and experienced by students.  

Despite the prevalence of the terms “belong” or “matter” in the literature, it is interesting to note that a search through the entire body of interview transcripts reveals the word “belong” appeared only one time, and “matter” did not appear at all. The terms did appear once or twice in each of the document reviews. While scholars may consider “belonging” or “mattering” to be essential definers of community, especially on college campuses, students and the staff who serve the campus population predominantly referred to the concepts of “gathering,” “interaction,” “conversation,” or “connectedness” as essential to community in their college unions. This could be interpreted to mean that students seek a two-way experience rather than merely a comfortable, safe, or welcoming space that might otherwise suffice for a sense of belonging or mattering.  

Universally, however, students offered comments that related to finding their own community within the larger community—a sense of a welcoming environment where they could be themselves. 

Universally, however, students offered comments that related to finding their own community within the larger community—a sense of a welcoming environment where they could be themselves. While students referred to it in different ways, their thoughts and comments spoke to the same single theme: being able to “find their spot.” As one participant said, “I think it’s a group of people who have a lot of shared interests and are able and want to help support each other. We come together here because it feels welcoming, it’s our place here.” Another indicated: “Even the people that come into the building that aren’t active, maybe in the student organizations and everything, they still make connections here. We all find our own little spot.” This notion of finding one’s spot is supported by the findings and literature reviewed for this study, including Alexander Astin’s What Matters in College, Joseph Berger’s article on community in the Journal of College Student Development, Breck Harris’ article in the Journal of College Student Retention, and more. This concept is interpreted from the research presented here in a way that better fits with the literature on belonging and mattering, and therefore remains an important component to community.  

It is this welcoming environment that can be a common ground for all comers. Missions and visions of the three college unions each share statements about being open to the entire campus community, providing welcoming gathering spaces, and being an intentionally inclusive environment. Documents related to the renovations among the three college unions offered an insight into the importance university leaders and designers placed on a common ground community before, during, and after the construction process. Statements collected from the union directors supported the common ground information, and were reinforced by students’ comments in the focus groups.  

From the early beginnings of the college union, practitioners have referred to the facility itself as the “living room” of campus. Yet this term was non-existent throughout the data collected from the interviews and focus groups. The use of “living room,” at least in the context of this study, should be considered a more traditional (i.e., outdated) expression. The concepts of “home,” “inclusive,” “access,” or “warmth” are considered more contemporary, appearing prominently throughout the data. Again, these concepts allow students and other users of the college union to make meaning of
their community.  

Employment/involvement is another important aspect of community making in the college union. Each student focus group participant consistently referenced the importance of their employment/volunteer role in relation to how they made meaning of community. In Robert Frigo’s Developing Leadership through Student Employment chapter, he explained that the aspects of professional student involvement—whether paid or voluntary—constitute an important connection to their college union and/or campus community. In this study of college unions and community, students self-identified many of their own and their peers’ roles in the college union including: leaders of student organizations, student government, fraternal chapters, tech staff, dining workers, cashiers, tour guides, and so on. One participant offered a succinct summarization of many other comments: “It’s a strong student staff support team that we have too. Without the student staff … this building wouldn’t be able to function.” It is their college union that students credit with providing the support for these roles and for encouraging students to actively engage with each other and their community. Students praised their college union for providing for them what they were unable to find anywhere else on campus—a true sense of connectedness, a place to call home, a community. 

The terms “tradition,” “loyalty,” and “culture” appeared nearly 50 times in the data and were prominently used by the focus group participants. Collectively, these terms translate to a sense of pride that the case study participants have with their college union, a manner in which they see and understand community for themselves.  

Collectively, these terms translate to a sense of pride that the case study participants have with their college union, a manner in which they see and understand community for themselves. 

Students from all three cases were especially proud of the attention to detail that had been paid not only to the design of their facilities, but also the design of the programs and services. As one participant said, “Bringing the pride back into [the union] helps bring the community.” It is this sense of pride among students that gives them a feeling of community, a connection to a place that is deeper and longer lasting than simply existing temporarily in a space. Two excerpts from the documents reviewed in this study encapsulate this notion: “Our enduring goal is to connect the [union] more deeply to more people” and “The [union] endeavors to connect students to the [university] throughout their college experience and beyond.” The college unions in this study sought to instill tradition, loyalty, and pride—all further aspects of community that clearly resonate with students and help tie them to their communities. 

Five Key Elements of College Unions Evident in Campus Community 

From participant responses, on-site observations, and the review of documents and pertinent literature, five key elements were revealed to answer Research Question 2.


The role of the student-centered college union goes as far back as the first college unions themselves, even before they were housed in formal structures. The majority of college unions today are supported in some manner by mandatory student fees, many of which receive a large portion of their overall annual operating budgets from such fees, according to The College Union Dynamic: Flexible Solutions for Successful Facilities, by Paul Knell and Stan Latta. The unions studied here are no different, with significant portions of their budgets coming from fees paid directly by students: PMU—88%, CSSC—80%, and SBSU—55%. With student fee support comes the expectation that the buildings be centered on students, and without a doubt the successful community-building college unions in this study do just that. 

Photo of a student centerPrograms and services provided by these three college unions are specifically designed to engage students outside of the traditional classroom setting. The vision and goal statements for these facilities support this out-of-class learning, referring to their buildings as: a living room, a hearthstone, a laboratory; as well as where lifelong learning is forged, where students develop personal and professional skills, and where an environment is developed for intentional learning. 

Comments among all three union directors support the information gathered from the pre-planning, pre-design, and design documents—each individual reiterated how important it was to involve members of their community (especially students) in the decision-shaping process. In their book Involving Colleges: Successful Approaches to Fostering Student Learning and Development outside the Classroom, George Kuh, John Schuh, and Elizabeth Whitt recognize this student involvement as one of the hallmarks of highly successful colleges. 

Previous research in The Bulletin, Planning for Higher Education, and the book City: Rediscovering the Center suggests that users (in these three college union cases, primarily students) are able to shape and be shaped by their environment, that place attachment can have a significant effect on members of a community, and that the environment should therefore be responsive to their needs. Additional indicators of student-centeredness from these college union cases include: images of students throughout the building, students are empowered in employment and leadership roles, students have their feet up on the couches, they feel comfortable dominating all areas with their conversations, and student organizations are given ample support space and resources. 

Dynamic Spaces 

Places become significant on college campuses because they give off messages or meaning about the institution, according to the book Mission and Place: Strengthening Learning and Community through Campus Design, by Daniel Kenney, Ricardo Dumont, and Ginger Kenney. The spaces within those places in turn imbue meaning to the community, meaning that can be perceived as positive, neutral, negative, or anywhere along the spectrum of human emotion. The data presented in this study indicate that dynamic space—space that can easily be altered to remain flexible and accommodating—is an important element of community resilience. As the SBSU director said, “Building community and maintaining a good community is also being somewhat fluid and making changes as they are needed. This university and the culture of this campus is that we’re supportive and growing to meet the needs of the community.” 

No longer can campuses afford to dedicate one building for one function, one program type, one department, or one college.

As campuses grow and change, so do their curricular methods and the population(s) they serve. When new needs develop campus spaces must be ready to respond, adapt, and change again as the cycle repeats. No longer can campuses afford to dedicate one building for one function, one program type, one department, or one college. The mix of furniture types and sizes throughout the three college unions in this study were rarely, if ever, fixed to a floor or wall. Meeting, lounge, and event spaces did not typically come with pre-set configurations, were regularly reviewed for functionality, and were designed to be bright and inviting rather than dark and closed off. 

Pathways to Success 

Mission and Place indicates: “The more that people’s paths cross and intersect, the more a campus feels like a community and a place to be cherished.” As campuses have grown in size and scope, the single pathway with a mix of uses has given way to a crisscross of hallways, sidewalks, and roads—each leading to a destination farther away from the central hub of community. As cities and towns have done the same, the desire to return to a vibrant downtown and main street has been an important factor in rebuilding community. Similar to the civic rebirth of downtowns, the college union can serve the main street function for colleges and universities—centralizing programs and services that might otherwise be spread across disparate locations on campus. At SBSU, for example, the union is known for “open doors and open minds” and provides a primary corridor through the building, known as “Main Street.” According to the SBSU director, this intentional creation of Main Street has revolutionized the way people think of and use the union, inviting a collaboration of ideas that was not prevalent prior to the renovation. 

In her 2015 dissertation regarding the role of physical space and community on campus, Kim Harrington reported, “Students experience a strong sense of community in outdoor spaces, student organization offices, and through cocurricular activities.” It is these spaces in college unions, in addition to lounges and dining areas, where students are most likely to actively interact with one another. But how do they come upon these spaces? What route do they take? The college unions in this study each provide human-scale environments, highlighted by Kathleen Manning and Kuh in their paper “Promoting Student Success: Making Place Matter to Student Success” as being the type of spaces that create pathways to participation, and which ultimately lead to student success. Referring to the university campus as a whole, Mission and Place supports this concept of access to collaboration via pathways: “The layout of the campus –including the adjacency and proximity of programs—can foster the exposure and interactions that lead to successful interdisciplinary collaboration, or it can stymie them.”  

It is the users of the space who can best plan for and guide how it will be most effectively utilized. For students to come upon important spaces, the path needs to be clear. Exterior and interior entrances among the three unions in this study were bright, visually appealing, and seemed to invite participation. Corridors, offices, meeting rooms, student organization spaces, lounges, etc. were clearly marked and free from obstructions that would otherwise block transparency.  

College is a Conversation 

In his 1999 inaugural address at the University of Indianapolis, President Jerry Israel outlined a theme of his presidency: “College is a Conversation,” discussing the importance of community-building spaces, cocurricular experiences, collaboration, and dialogue. In her Bulletin article, Lacey Solheid noted that, “Conversation is the sustaining activity of any good place of community.” This study revealed conversations occurring in the hallways, in lounges, at dining tables, in study groups, in offices, and simply among and across groups of students and others. During more intentional observation sessions, some conversations were identified as more academically focused, some were purely social, and others clearly had great significance to the conversation participants. Focus group members from all three college unions talked about the importance of conversation and dialogue as part of their involvement and connection with their college union community. As a student who worked at the CSSC said, “My friends didn’t use to come here, they didn’t know what was going on at the student center. But they started coming to see me while I was working here, connecting with other students and seeing so many things in action and students talking to each other and even with staff. Now they are active in stuff here all of the time!” 

For true inclusive conversations to occur, a college union must not only be welcoming to, but also provide programs and services for, a diverse student and community population. 

For true inclusive conversations to occur, a college union must not only be welcoming to, but also provide programs and services for, a diverse student and community population. The Porter Memorial Union is significantly smaller at 105,000 square feet than the C. Shaw or Shirley Bird buildings, which are 210,000 and 160,000 square feet respectively. With the smaller size comes a limit to the number of offices and services that can be accommodated within the facility. While the CSSC and SBSU buildings house support offices for veterans and international students, as well as an LGBT center and multicultural center, those services are located elsewhere on the Alliance campus, not inside the PMU. The absence of these offices could affect how students perceive and/or engage with their community at Alliance and within the PMU. It should be noted, however, that students served by those offices are supported via active student organizations and event support within the PMU. The students and staff from the focus group acknowledged this fact, and spoke favorably about the supportive and inclusive environment within their union. In other words, PMU participants did not miss these formal offices in their building, likely because of the programmatic support available. 

House of Serendipity 

The findings from this study suggest that college unions need to offer varied and exciting elements of campus life as well as necessary services if they are to be true community builders. This will manifest as new opportunities for students to interact with one other in ways that may not have been initially intended—in other words, a thoughtful, planned serendipity for the university community.

C. Shaw Smith, former ACUI president and union director at Davidson College, spoke on this notion throughout his career. In a speech to Region 8 conference delegates in 1960, he said: “The union is and always should be a house of serendipity—a gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”  

Photo of a college unionIn their book Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work, Carney Strange and James Banning note that people take cues from their environment, cues that influence both the energy and the attitude of people in a space, including their willingness to linger or move along. Kuh, Schuh, and Whitt asserted: “Interaction among community members is fostered by the availability of indoor and outdoor spaces where people can come together without much effort. Institutions should consider whether their campuses have adequate places that encourage spontaneous, informal interaction among students. 

“Examples include: residence hall and union areas that encourage impromptu interaction, such as lounges with comfortable furniture, wide hallways, and side stairwells; and meeting facilities with space dividers that permit the creation of small, quiet gathering spaces.” 

A student at the PMU said: “There’s that randomness, that serendipity, of running into someone and that possibility of making a new friend that day. I really think that you need the physical space to be able to meet new people and see new faces.” One college union in the study actually refers to itself as a house of serendipity, including information on its website and throughout its documents about experiences that offer “more than was expected.” Another of the three unions boasts how it “fosters spontaneous interaction,” and a third states that it “increases students’ opportunities for cocurricular involvement and increases their interaction with others” via both planned and spontaneous programs and activities. Two of the college unions provide meeting space that can be reserved on the spot. And all three unions offer lounge space in excess of 10,000 square feet, and freely allow (and expect) furniture to be moved and adjusted as needed by students. The serendipity of the college union is what makes it a unique building on campus, a place where students and others can happen upon programs, services, events, or just
each other.  

Connections Among the Elements 

The five key elements of college unions evident in campus community do not stand in isolation from one another, but rather rely on important connections among each other to strengthen their own presence. The dynamic spaces element has a strong connection to the serendipity element—one needs the other to be fully realized. For a space or a program to be truly dynamic, policies or practices should not impede the opportunity for spontaneous planning. Nor should serendipity be thwarted by individuals or fixtures in the building that remain inflexible or unresponsive. Likewise, for effective pathways to success to properly exist in the college union, the facility must remain student-centered in all that it offers. The union must also provide avenues for inclusive conversation and dialogue, or the pathways may be limited or outright closed for some members of the university community. 

The connections among the five elements are not arbitrary, nor are they inconsequential. The successful college union, one that espouses effective community-building as its primary purpose, will need to successfully weave the five elements throughout its design, operation, and program.  

Recommendations for Practice 

Design Professionals 

Lessons from this study can inform professionals who work with universities, specifically in the design of community building spaces like the college union. First, designers must understand that their client is not solely the vice president for finance, dean, or board of trustees. Specifically, designers will need to work carefully to engage a broader representation of campus stakeholders throughout the design process. Spaces that are dynamic and responsive, that invite conversation, and that allow for spontaneity of activity will need to permeate their designs. A large, bright, and open environment will need to be matched with human-scale offerings such as small nooks for quiet studying, quaint gathering spots, as well as spaces for more intimate conversation. However, designers must be intentional and genuine in their efforts to ensure more than superficial consideration of the elements of community. 

College Union Leaders 

Many of today’s college union leaders are up against what Donald Schon refers to as “dynamic conservatism” in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. History and tradition often pull practitioners back to a status quo—to a “we have always done it this way” mentality—especially when major decisions are on the line. The directors and staff of the three cases studied here offer stories of pitting themselves against long-established campus norms (and people), at times facing insurmountable challenges while attempting to develop new programs or processes, or to eliminate old ones. This hurdle for college union practitioners and other university leaders will likely never cease to exist. However, the outcomes of this study provide a framework from which campus leaders can learn to better navigate this dynamic conservatism. 

College union leaders must not only provide for, but also demand that, students remain central to the form and function of their facilities.

As they move forward with potential renovation or construction projects, or even day-to-day operations, college union leaders should be well attuned to the five key elements of college unions evident in campus community. Equally important, this information should be shared with academic leaders, major donors, legislators, and members of their university community. College union leaders must not only provide for, but also demand that, students remain central to the form and function of their facilities. Students and other users of the college union must have a voice at the table, be included in policy decisions, and be welcomed into processes that shape the facilities themselves. Providing open pathways of communication for students and other users has been identified in this study as an essential component of effective community.  

Study Limitations 

The research presented here relies on the study of three college union cases, each with its own unique history, circumstances, setting, student community, etc. While careful consideration was used to select three analogous cases so that the findings might be replicated at other similar college unions, it is unreasonable to fully generalize the findings to all college unions. It also was not possible to pursue every aspect of community in detail given the scope of this study. An exhaustive uncovering of all data pertaining to community in college unions, and how students make meaning of that community, was neither feasible nor justifiable. Additionally, the sampling for the case selection was based on criteria from an external source, the ACUI Facility Design Awards. While the award has clear criteria for selection and is juried by professionals with college union expertise, it is not a perfect practice. 

Another potential limitation to this study is that of researcher bias, especially in consideration of the researcher’s strong personal interest in college unions, community building, and higher education in general. To assuage the potential for researcher bias, three college union cases were selected that the researcher had never previously visited and where he had no prior significant relationship with the participants. 

The college unions in this study reside on campuses with predominantly white student populations (Alliance – 87%; Concord – 78%; Hearthstone – 89%); therefore, the data collected in this study, especially those from the interview and focus groups, is lacking a perspective from students of color. Previous research in the Journal of College Student Development, Teachers College Record, and Journal of the Indiana University Student Personnel Association indicates that students of color perceive their environments (community) differently than white students. Because participants in this study were nearly entirely white, it is unknown how responses from students of color may have changed the data and therefore the findings of this study. 

Future Research 

When observing the physical setting, Sharan Merriam, author of Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation, posits several questions: “What is the physical environment like? What is the context? What kinds of behavior is the setting designed for? How is space allocated? Who is in the scene? What brings these people together?” Additional studies that help answer these questions will further what is known about the college union. Scholarship regarding the college union profession is becoming more prevalent, although not widely recognized. The findings here, coupled with recent and imminent findings, will make for a robust body of literature that will inform college union practitioners as well as higher education leaders and scholars. A potential meta-analysis could identify additional areas of inquiry or might further refine the elements discovered in this study. However, without a concerted effort to tell the college union story, this information may continue to be masked by obscurity. 

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