May/June Bulletin cover
Volume 83 | Issue 3
May 2015

Environmental Psychology & College Unions: An Introduction to Theoretical Models

Lacey Solheid

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solheid core competenciesThe literature in recent decades has explored the relationship between physical space and community. By using Carney Strange’s and James Banning’s model for building community and concepts introduced by Ray Oldenburg regarding the “third place,” union administrators can begin to create a better experience for their students. Additionally, specific design elements and future research can advance the union’s primary role as a community builder on campus.

Emotional connections to spaceCreating a Community

One of the most popular human development models is Maslow’s theory of human motivation. This theory arranges basic human needs in a hierarchy with the most important needs—physical and safety concerns—at the bottom, progressing upward to self-actualization needs at the top of the pyramid. The needs lowest in the hierarchy must be met before other needs closer to the top. The first level of needs is biological and includes breathing, food, sleep, and shelter. To achieve the second level, people pursue opportunities for security and protection. The third level includes building relationships with other people as well as seeking affirmation from others. The fourth level is fulfilling a sense of esteem through achievement and respect from others. The final level of the hierarchy is self-actualization, in which people are able to exercise creative freedoms.

Safety and Inclusion

In their 2001 book Educating by Design, Strange and Banning suggested a parallel model (Figure 1) to Maslow’s hierarchy when describing community building. Like Maslow’s theory, their model takes a “bottom to top” approach when discussing the hierarchical needs. To create a community of invested members, students’ safety and inclusion needs must be met first. “The safety and inclusion of participants must be attended to first, followed by structures that promote involvement, and then conditions that offer full membership in a community of learning,” Strange wrote in her 2000 New Directions for Student Services volume.

This first level of safety ties together both physical and psychological aspects of environment. These concepts are often intricately related. Strange and Banning illustrated this connection: “For example, insufficient outdoor lighting on campus (a safety issue) may make it less attractive to some students (an inclusion issue), and failure to successfully attract and retain sufficient enrollment of some students (for example, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students), an inclusion issue, may make it psychologically unsafe for those few who do matriculate.” An essential and important component of this level is the fact that students must not only be physically free from harm and threat, but they should also feel psychologically safe. When exploring these needs, physical as well as psychological elements must be considered.

Union administrators who are successful in building community align their physical spaces with institutional values. A common theme expressed in the literature on physical place is that when people are trying to make meaning of an environment and the intended, verbal communication of a space contradicts the unintended, nonverbal communication of that same space, they will tend to believe the latter. For example, if a union has welcome signs posted outside, but the building entrance is difficult to locate and leads to a narrow hallway, visitors may not feel the warm welcoming atmosphere the union is attempting to promote. If the nonverbal cues and an environment’s intended communication do not align, people may not feel as though they belong in the union.

A feeling of belonging can have significant effects on students. A 1996 article in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing defined belonging as “the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment so that persons feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment.” In 1989, Nancy Schlossberg introduced the theory of marginality and mattering: As students attempt to adjust in college, they may experience feelings of marginalization. To combat those negative feelings, students need to find a feeling of mattering to the campus in some way. Students who feel they matter tend to persist both socially and academically.

Many elements contribute to a student’s sense of belonging. Research has shown that self-esteem can significantly impact students’ social and academic lives. Students with a low sense of mattering tend to have lower self-esteem and are at a greater risk for depression, the Journal of College Student Development reported in 2008. Those students who have low self-esteem, and a low feeling of worthiness, may have difficulty connecting with the physical environment of the institution, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Educational Research. It is also important to consider the human aggregate characteristics of an environment. Individuals with similar characteristics tend to come together. Eventually, the environment absorbs those characteristics, creating the idea that a person’s “experience is therefore a function of his or her congruence, or degree of fit, with the dominant group,” Strange wrote. Furthermore, Strange asserted that if individuals feel they do not align with the values or behavior within the environment, they have a better chance of leaving that place.

There are many factors to consider in creating safe and inclusive environments. Students should ultimately feel free from physical harm when in the union environment. A lot of time and energy can be spent on feelings of being excluded or marginalized. If these feelings can be resolved, students may then be able to pursue opportunities to grow and develop. This will eventually lead to a higher level of engagement within the community, Strange and Banning reported.

involvement triangle

Providing a safe and inclusive environment is not an end. Institutions must also offer meaningful opportunities for involvement. As people feel more secure in their environment, they want to engage with their surroundings. Involvement is more than being physically present. It also includes the physical and psychological time invested in that environment or activity. A number of factors can assist in creating an encouraging place.

As mentioned previously, smaller-scale environments offer a place where more intimate connections can be made. Forethought should be given to spaces when buildings are being designed. Intentionally including small nooks and booths can offer smaller-scale learning environments. Strange and Banning shared this example: Think of a large lecture hall. It is difficult for 300 students to all learn the same subject at the same level in an hour’s time. But much more can be learned in a group of three students because stronger connections can be made among students and with the material.

Another important aspect of environments that encourage involvement is flexible spaces that can be changed to suit the needs of the students using the space. By having moveable and flexible rooms, furniture, and walls, students can begin to take ownership of the space. This can give people a feeling of having a deeper role in the design of the space, Strange wrote. Such flexibility can also encourage a more open flow of traffic throughout the environment and can maximize the use of the space. For instance, a space used as an eating area during the day and as a concert venue at night allows more people to utilize it, keeping activities dynamic and interesting and leading to more connections to the community.

Full Membership

These levels of safety, inclusion, and engagement ultimately culminate in a meaningful and deep membership in the community. As students have experiences rich in growth and development, they can start to give meaning to the world, Strange and Banning asserted. Environments that allow students to take on more important and decision-making roles enable them to contribute to the culture and direction of the space. When students are fully immersed in their community and memorable and meaningful experiences take place, the bond formed among individuals can be powerful. As time goes on and these memories become a part of history, traditions begin to build. The rich traditions and culture of an environment can help students give greater meaning to the world past their own needs. By giving students the opportunity to be a part of the history and decision-making process, they begin to establish more confidence in their own abilities and develop into stronger human beings.

physical space and behaviorCharacteristics and Design Elements

The idea of community and belonging is not tangible, but characteristics can be used to describe elements that make up a good student union. Ray Oldenburg’s theoretical concept of the “third place” describes where people spend their time when they are not at home or work. Third spaces facilitate informal social interactions by incorporating several important characteristics.

Driven by Conversation

One of the first and most important characteristics of a third place is that it is a neutral ground in which the activities are driven by conversation. Places of community are those that people can freely move in and out of at will. They allow for a person to meet others and not have the obligation of staying there or hosting others. By having a neutral place for people to meet, the door for conversation is opened. Conversation is the sustaining activity of any good place of community, Oldenburg asserted. Notably, with their roots in debating societies, student unions were forums for conversation even before they were places. Today, there are many opportunities for students to exercise this characteristic of community within a student union. From lectures and speakers to protests and political activism, events constantly encourage an open dialogue.

The Hearthstone and Warmth

Oldenburg also indicated the third place should be warm and inviting. Just as a fireplace of a home has a hearth or hearthstone, so does a student union. The hearthstone serves the student union as both a tangible and theoretical center of warmth and community. A hearthstone is often the centerpiece of a welcoming environment. According to Oldenburg, warm places tend to be highly trafficked, whereas underused spaces tend to have an unwelcoming and cold feeling. Oldenburg also explained that in a warm space, patrons should feel a sense of ownership and be aware of how they can contribute to the environment. This sense of ownership can often assist in building the community.

The Role of the College Union claims the student union as the hearthstone of campus, meaning it should be a warm and inviting space. Because of this, many unions have a physical fireplace located centrally in the building around which students frequently socialize and study. In 2013, the University of Minnesota–Duluth Kirby Student Center underwent a small first floor renovation project. Through this construction, two fireplaces and a television lounge were added. After the grand opening of the space, usage of the student lounge increased drastically. One clear focal point in the building can create a sense of comfort. Water features, artwork, and even foliage can serve as a substitute for a fireplace.

Accessibility and Transparency

Accessibility and transparency are a few other elements considered to be timeless to student unions and third places. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has a significant impact on higher education institutions. There are certain reasonable accommodations a college or university must make to allow equal access to resources to all students. This could be as simple as putting in ramps to the buildings’ entrances and intentional and thoughtful placement of elevators. If colleges and universities do not meet some of the minimum requirements, students may take them to court. In cases involving physical structures, some students have been successful in presenting and winning their cases. However, it should be noted that the act is not a building code; it is a civil rights law and one that affirms Schlossberg’s concept of mattering and marginality. Students will be more engaged and willing to learn in an environment that shows all students—regardless of ability—that they belong at the university.

In addition to being accessible to all students, the building must remain transparent and open. A 2013 Bulletin article described a union with exterior transparency as a “billboard of student activities.” By being visible to the rest of campus, the events essentially advertise themselves while they are happening. This can ultimately lead to more student participation. It is also important to note that spaces students are encouraged to use on a regular basis, such as the food court, diversity center, activities office, or lounges, should be easily seen and visible to the public. Being able to see the activities may spark curiosity.

Dining and Food Service

Another important aspect of a strong community is that of dining and food service. In the past, dining options tended to embody a cafeteria-like atmosphere with a limited menu. Today, unions commonly offer a diverse range of food. Additionally, in “marketplace” concepts, kitchens are in the forefront, allowing students to engage in the process of ordering and creating their food. Many colleges and universities now have made-to-order food to satisfy the need for students to feel specialized. Students are able to customize their meals to include their own preferences, furthering the notion of mattering. Two students may order from the same menu but end up with entirely different meals. Food and dining can also foster discussion. Eating with other people is the ultimate social interaction, according to Oldenburg. Sharing in meals cultivates conversations, which is one of the other sustaining activities of a good third place.  

Information Gathering

Unions can serve as an information-gathering space for students and other members of the campus community. The union is often where students, faculty, and staff learn about events and other happenings on campus. A feature that embodies this idea is a welcome center or desk. By having a central location where students, staff, faculty, alumni, and visitors can go to ask questions, they might feel less confusion. This desk is often one of the first features with which a prospective student comes in contact. Having a staff of knowledgeable student employees may help this student feel more a part of the community because of the shared characteristics. These welcome centers offer a way for students and visitors to immediately feel connected and relates to creating a warm atmosphere within the student union.

Future Research

In researching community building, it is evident this subject has been gaining attention in higher education throughout the past decade. However, little research has been specifically dedicated to the physical structures of student unions.

In 2012, ACUI organized a summit of higher education officials, architects, and campus planners to discuss the principles of community and how they affect students and other members of campus. Other studies and research often include the student union, but not as a distinct entity on campus. Often, unions are grouped together in studies with libraries, residence halls, or other campus buildings. More research must be conducted on the specific ways a student union contributes to the community of campus. While entities often housed within student unions have been studied (e.g., student involvement in activities), still a gap in research exists. The physical space that unions offer to student organizations has not really been examined.

Because this area of research is so small, there are several gaps that need to be filled. More attention needs to be paid to students who may not fit into the majority characteristics of the institution. A lot of the literature offers a blanket idea of community on campus, but is this what community looks like for minority students? How does the idea of community affect international students? Or first-generation students? Do students and allies in the LGBT group feel a sense of connection to the campus? These are questions that are not yet answered.

It is also important to note that this may not be the only way of look at community building in unions. There may be several other elements that can aid in advancing a student’s connection to the place. Strange and Banning discussed the importance of feeling a connection to the history of the school. Could the idea of incorporating the history of the union and campus in the design also be an important element of community? Using photographs and memorabilia may be a way of building the connection between current and past generations of students. Further investigation is warranted.

As the competition for campus resources and students’ time increases, it will be important for unions to justify their contribution to the campus community. Assessment is vital to the student affairs profession. NASPA and ACPA consider assessment and research to be important skill sets for professionals. Assessment is also a skill identified within three of ACUI’s core competencies. By conducting research exclusive to the union, professionals could have the opportunity to create a strong case for obtaining more resources, both physical and monetary, from the institution.

Doing the Work

After reviewing the model for creating community on campus, it is apparent the union is at the heart of the campus community. These buildings truly are laboratories of social interactions. The many features of unions help to contribute to the feeling of community a union strives to build. By adapting and aligning the physical environment with the institutional values, a union can fulfill the first levels of security and belonging to the union and campus environment. Students will begin to feel welcomed and invited if the spaces offered are warm and promote conversation and dialogue as a main activity. Particular attention should be paid to the human elements of spaces. Person-to-person engagement has become more prevalent in design elements.

A number of obstacles can prevent practitioners from building an ideal community on campus. These barriers may not easily be fixed, but practitioners should be aware of them as they work to create a strong sense of community on campus. The first problem is the infrastructure and shell of the building necessitating renovation or a complete reimagination of space. This leads to a second problem in funding. With scarce financial resources, it may be difficult to obtain the necessary funds to support construction and renovation projects. Unions are also competing for students’ time and business. Because unions are no longer the only place of community, they face a struggle in attracting students. A final, and possibly the most important ,problem in community building may be the administrators themselves. The silo effect isolates many departments across campus. College union administrators need to be strong campus leaders and be open to new and creative approaches to building community. They must work beyond their own disciplines and departments to foster collaboration, take risks, stand up for students’ interests, and encourage creativity. They must be champions for building
campus community.


Lacey SolheidLacey Solheid is the student engagement coordinator at Montana State University–Billings. She has a B.A. in communication from the University of Minnesota–Duluth and a M.S. in counseling and student development from Kansas State University. Her professional interests include student involvement, community building, social media, marketing, and graphic design.