A Story of Change: Renovating and Assessing a New Student Organization Suite
The Student Involvement Suite in the Adele H. Stamp Student Union-Center for Campus Life (STAMP) was first opened in 2005 when there were approximately 300 registered student organizations at the University of Maryland–College Park. In fewer than 10 years, the number of organizations grew to more than 750. There was not enough meeting space to accommodate the demand, fewer than 100 student organizations had dedicated offices, and the technical and programmatic resources available to student organizations were limited.In 2012, STAMP staff initiated the planning process for a full renovation of the Student Involvement Suite to address these challenges.
“Organizations weren’t coming in to the Student Involvement Suite if they either didn’t have an office or they didn’t have to pay for something using funds allocated from the Student Government Association,” said Ashley Venneman, who manages the space. “There was a huge number of organizations that we were never interacting with.”
A renovation was needed to maximize the suite, so it could be useful to more student organizations. This meant examining not only the physical space but also the department’s operations to improve service. The basic renovation plan included the elimination of dedicated office space for all but two student organizations—the Student Government Association and Student Entertainment and Events, the primary programming board for campus events—and replacing it with flexible meeting spaces, storage lockers, and collaborative spaces.
By comparing data from the early stages of the project to recent post-occupancy data, STAMP staff members have been able to celebrate success, note unexpected use cases, prioritize additional needs, and offer lessons to other campuses.
Planning Change: Determining the DesignOnce the decision was made to renovate the Student Involvement Suite, STAMP staff members began an iterative and inclusive process of soliciting feedback from students, staff, and faculty. A task force comprised of six staff members and six students was established in 2012 to collect and analyze data in preparation for the renovation.
This effort included multiple data collection strategies. Student organization members were sent a questionnaire examining their satisfaction with the current Student Involvement Suite and improvement suggestions. STAMP’s “Street Team,” a group of student employees who market events and collect perceptions from random students on campus, collected responses to a questionnaire exploring students’ knowledge of the Student Involvement Suite and the resources they would like to see offered. Later, focus groups were conducted, led by the director, Marsha Guenzler-Stevens, Ph.D., with student organization leaders and those students “yet to be fully involved.” During initial focus groups, students were asked broad questions about the use of the current Student Involvement Suite and what changes they would like to see in the renovation.
All feedback was synthesized and given to the design firm Avancé, which incorporated these suggestions to produce multiple designs. These designs were then revisited with students during additional focus groups to solicit their opinions. The designs were also showcased during a “design day” when stakeholders from across campus were invited to imagine their own elements of the space and give feedback on ideas generated from the focus groups.
The inclusion of student and other stakeholder opinions extended beyond the floorplan of the renovated suite to the furniture that would reside there. Extensive conversations lasting over a year were held throughout the design process to identify how different furniture would foster collaboration. The inclusion of a “family table” was a student suggestion that was incorporated in all design plans. Similarly, the space boasts a circular, astral bench to allow for easier dialogue and a nonhierarchical power structure during meetings. Students were involved in adding these aspects to the design and they travelled to Maine, along with some STAMP staff members, to build the furniture pieces they had conceptualized at Thomas Moser furniture.
Throughout the process, special consideration was given to those student organizations that represented students from historically marginalized groups. A significant number of the organizations that maintained dedicated office space in the Student Involvement Suite were cultural and identity-based groups, such as the Latino Student Union and Filipino Cultural Association. For these organizations, their office was not just a dedicated physical space but also offered a more private sense of place they could claim as their own. Throughout the renovation, members of these organizations were engaged to help develop and guide ideas as to how the suite and the Student Organization Resource Center staff could better serve them.
Guiding Change: Task Force Recommendations
The data collected during the design process, as well as feedback from staff and the results of benchmarking against peer institutions informed the following list of recommended changes from the task force:
- Improve the aesthetic of the space with a more open and flexible layout: Students attending the focus groups noted that the current space was not inviting. Uninvolved and graduate students said they felt excluded from using the space.
- Increase the amount and variety of collaborative spaces: Those in student organizations shared that they often visited out of a need to use the resources in the suite (e.g., financial services) but that the space was not conducive to interaction. As one student said, the suite “feels like you go in, do what you need, and leave.”
- Address student organization storage needs: The primary storage option available to student organizations in 2014 were offices. However, only about 80 of the 750+ student organizations were granted dedicated office space. All peer institutions the task force visited provided lockable storage space. The new design plan called for elimination of almost all offices and the addition of 100 storage lockers in the Student Involvement Suite.
- Create a resource room or work area: A number of the peer institutions provided some sort of resource room with access to office supplies and other resources. In the original layout, student organizations did not have access to these resources.
- Increase the amount of ongoing and structured advising provided to student organization leaders: Most peer institutions provided centralized support to student organizations regarding event planning, and all institutions offered structured advising around specific topics (e.g., financial tools, member retention). Student responses to the questionnaires indicated a desire for workshops addressing these topics as well as officer transition and marketing. While these resources and trainings were available throughout the union, students were required to visit multiple offices.
- Explore technology solutions to increase centralization of resources: Students were vocal about their desire for additional online resources such as community calendars and discussion boards. More than 45% of those surveyed indicated providing online resources was “extremely important.”
- Provide access to computers and specialized software; include printer access: In addition to the resource room, data suggested including a computer room in the design, providing specialized software and the ability for organizations to print materials. About half of the peer institutions offered some sort of printing service.
- Introduce the ability for student organizations to advertise on the internal TV system: STAMP had recently introduced an internal digital signage service, through which offices and organizations were able to advertise events and share information. The task force recommended adding additional screens in the renovated suite that would be specific to student organizations.
- Increase the communication between staff and student organizations, supported by increased student staffing: About five students were employed in the original Student Involvement Suite. These students were trained primarily in assisting organizations with financial issues and regulations. The task force recommended expanding student staffing to offer workshops, trainings, and one-on-one consultations. The task force also recommended adding a graduate assistant position to assist in these efforts.
The task force focused its recommendations on those resources that could be centralized or added to the Student Involvement Suite that would not duplicate resources already available in the building. The Stamp Student Union boasts almost 20 reservable meeting rooms that are open to student organizations at a reduced rate and also provides support to organizations looking to host meetings in academic buildings across campus, most of which are free.
Seeing Change: The Renovated Student Involvement Suite
Opened in fall 2016, the redesigned Student Involvement Suite features meeting spaces for up to 30 students, last-minute meeting rooms for groups of six or less, as well as a variety of reservable open seating spaces. The interior of the suite is easily visible to those walking through STAMP, and the exterior features digital screens that rotate ads for student organizations as well as two kiosks where students can explore organizations in OrgSync. Two hundred storage lockers were added, either in the suite or elsewhere in the building.
Follow-up focus groups were conducted in fall 2017 to explore student reactions to the space and identify areas for improvement. One student remarked: “I knew what the space looked like before. … I was just surprised at how they transformed it from what it was: [a place] that nobody knew was there in the first place to what is now.” Most students in the focus groups mentioned the glass walls and open layout as critical for encouraging students to enter the suite. One student organization leader said that “since it’s an open space and people know our org is there, if they ever wanted to ... they could just stop by.” Another student organization leader who also works in the suite noted that it’s not uncommon to hear the reaction of people walking by: “[They would say] like ‘Wow, what is this? When did this get here?’ and they could just look through. … A lot of them would walk by and come inside and ask, ‘What is this place?’”
Other students shared that they use the meeting spaces and aesthetic of the renovated suite to set the tone for their organization. One focus group participant explained: “We always have our first meetings here, and I feel like the new people who joined the board. ... It’s sort of like a professional way to start off. We’re not meeting in a small dark classroom, we’re meeting here, and it feels like we have a lot of resources at our fingertips and ... it’s a good first impression.”
Along with physical changes to the space, the resources provided to students were increased and centralized. The suite is home to the Student Organization Resource Center (SORC), the office tasked with providing resources, support, and training to student organizations. Following the task force recommendations, 20 more student employees were hired and trained to serve as a resource on a range of services including reserving meeting spaces, assisting organizations using the resource room, and navigating OrgSync. The new graduate student position organizes workshops for student organization leaders on member engagement and retention, among other topics, and invites outside presenters to share their knowledge and increase awareness of the renovation with stakeholders across campus.
This support was a welcome change for student leaders, one of whom said: “When I founded our club I learned first about [the Student Government Association] money and then I was told you go to SORC to learn how to spend the money. That’s all I knew about SORC. … When they renovated it, I think it’s a little more clear. You can just go up and ask somebody.”
Central to the success of this effort was the expansion of the Student Involvement Suite hours. Previously, only open from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., the suite hours are now aligned with the Stamp Student Union hours. The Student Involvement Suite now opens half an hour after the Stamp Student Union opens (7 a.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m. Sundays) and closes half an hour before the building closes (Midnight Sunday through Thursday and 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday). Trained student staff members operate the desk at all times, and door counters were recently installed to track the number of students for whom the Student Involvement Suite provides resources at all hours. From mid-September when the door counters were installed through the end of March, the Student Involvement Suite hosted 319,055 visitors. In the coming months, staff members will examine these data more closely to understand peak hours and staffing needs.
Managing Change: Surprises & Challenges
At the grand opening when the construction wall came down and revealed the new aesthetic, one student was heard saying: “Oh my gosh, this place makes me want to get involved!” Large windows seem to draw new students, visitors, and alumni alike into the suite, which is located next to the most used building entrance with 17,000 visitors passing through on a given day.
Academic Use of Spaces
With an attractive exterior and ample collaborative spaces, it was no surprise that the suite quickly filled with students. To the team managing the space, this was both welcome and curious: while students were using the space, they did not appear to be using the space as intended. There was a proliferation of laptops and headphones as students appeared to claim the suite as a study zone. Students working at the Student Involvement Suite information desk complete shift reports at the end of every shift. From late August 2016 through mid-October 2017, 817 shift reports were submitted, over 85% of which mentioned students studying or working on homework.
While staff struggled with this unintended use of the space, during focus groups one student organization leader who noted their members use the space for studying provided context, noting that “presence” was the most important thing the Student Involvement Suite has provided to their organization. They continued, saying: “[Our members] know where we hang out. They know if they need to reach out, we know where to look for people, and … it also builds our community [to] get face-to-face contact.” The easy visibility allowed for spontaneous interaction. Through the focus groups, students’ comments were able to dispel a worry held by STAMP staff members managing the suite.
Serving as a Central Resource for STAMP
Another unexpected challenge stems from the location and the increased visibility into the suite. Near the most used building entrance, visitors have at times assumed the students at the Student Involvement Suite information desk are a central resource for the building, reporting problems that need to be directed to the police or other campus administrators. This can cause confusion for visitors who may have initially been directed to a different location in the building where they can have their needs addressed. Staff members are planning to develop training to prepare Student Involvement Suite student staff to perform some of these functions. This will provide visitors with two locations where they can have their critical questions answered and improve overall customer service throughout the building.
One of the “largest ongoing challenge[s] we will continue to face,” Venneman said, is storage for student organizations. While the square footage did not change much, providing storage space to an increased number of groups resulted in some organizations who held offices in the old suite losing a large amount of storage while other students were able to gain locker space previously unavailable. All students participating in focus groups in fall 2017 noted that storage was a challenge for their organization, both in terms of the overall amount of space as well as the size of the lockers compared to the items they needed to store. In addition to storing things in the apartments of student organization members, one student leader noted: “We do [have a storage locker]. ... We also have a pod at a storage facility that has a ton more things. …A lot of those larger items, there’s just not a place to put them other than the storage unit.” STAMP staff members have identified multiple potential locations across campus to meet this need.
Unique Meeting Spaces
The largest meeting space available in the suite is four tables in the open seating area, primarily used by students to do homework. Staff managing the space had assumed students were either unaware they could reserve the open spaces or didn’t want to have to ask people studying there to leave. However, when student organizations were asked why they do not reserve these spaces for their meetings, one student leader said: “[It] seems unnatural almost to not be in an enclosed space”; another agreed, stating: “We don’t want the distraction of other people while we’re having our meetings.”
For other student organizations, however, this is exactly the type of space for which they are looking. When a new student organization was created for students interested in pursuing dentistry, they purposefully held one of their first organization meetings in the circular bench so that other students were able to overhear their conversation, using the open nature of the space as a marketing tactic. A student in one of the focus groups noted that she had seen other groups use this strategy, stating: “Sometimes there are orgs that ...use an open space. A lot of times that make other people aware that they exist.” Similarly, TerpThon, the student organization at the University of Maryland that raises money for Children’s National Hospital to fight childhood cancer, held its “Day of Miracles” at the family table and surrounding collaborative spaces in the Student Involvement Suite. This afforded organization members the ability to interact, provide support, and market their efforts to the campus community.
Advancing Change: Looking Forward
With the first year of operations complete, staff members have turned their attention to focus on more advanced and specialized training for student organization leaders. In fall 2017, Student Involvement Suite staff began a dialogue with staff in the Leadership and Community Service Learning unit in STAMP to brainstorm ways to increase collaboration across these program areas, specifically with regard to leadership development. This effort will be further developed with support from data collected through the spring 2018 administration of the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership.
Other efforts underway focus on streamlining administrative processes for student organizations, namely the multiple registration forms students are required to complete. With each change in leadership, student organizations must renew their registration through OrgSync, identify the members authorized to use the building scheduling system, and request permission to post electronic posters on the digital screens. Many of these forms request the same information leaving students frustrated with repetitive requirements.
A card-swipe attendance tracking system is also in development. This system will give student organizations the ability to capture who is attending their events and meetings, determine how long they are staying, and generate a roster so executive boards can easily follow up with additional information about their organization.
Your Change: Lessons for Other Unions
Through the challenges faced by the STAMP staff members working on the Student Involvement Suite renovation, several lessons can be applied to similar renovation efforts at other campus unions:
- Engage students in the process: The number and frequency of focus groups, combined with surveys and other informal data collection efforts ensured that students’ voices, concerns, and dreams were incorporated into the renovation. Staff were concerned about taking away office space from some longstanding student organizations that represented historically marginalized populations. However, by listening and engaging student leaders throughout the process, student leaders were able to recognize that by giving up their dedicated office space, they were serving the “greater good,” as one student leader attending an early focus group noted.
- Don’t assume; collect data: Staff members managing the Student Involvement Suite had been worried about students using the suite as a study zone rather than the collaborative organization meeting space it was intended to be. By talking with students during the focus group process, students were able to reframe this activity for staff members, reminding them that studying was largely how the old dedicated office spaces had been used before the renovation.
- Be flexible: Throughout the first year and a half of operation, staff members engaged in a process of revisiting manuals and policies when faced with questions from student organizations. Through this process, established policies have been altered to accommodate innovative uses of the space imagined by student organization leaders. For example, spurred by conversations with TerpThon, the space reservation policies were amended to allow organizations to appeal the standard space and time limits for a special event.
Survey data collected from student organization members in 2012 indicated that 50% of respondents did not visit the Student Involvement Suite in a given week and 23% spent an hour or less in the space. When asked what resources they use in the suite, 41% indicated the meeting room spaces and 31% indicated the lounge space, while 46% indicated they did not use any of the listed resources.
In fall 2017, survey data collected showcased that the design and staffing changes to the Student Involvement Suite may be having the intended effect; only 36% of student organization members who responded indicated they do not spend any time in the Student Involvement Suite in a typical week and fewer than one in six (15%) said they had not used any of the resources available.
The same student organization leader who noted the prior Student Involvement Suite was a space where students “do what you need and leave” shared that students should “really listen to the name—Student Organization Resource Center. This is a place where you literally have all of the resources you need. … I mean everything you need for a student group is here.”
Guenzler-Stevens said: “We've come a long way in enhancing the resources we provide to student organizations. I can only imagine what additional resources our students will have access to in the Student Involvement Suite over the next two, five, or 10 years. I am constantly impressed by my colleagues’ ability to imagine and create engaging new opportunities and resources for our students."