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

Building Community Through Physical Space: A Visual Ethnography of College Union Utilization by Community College Transfer Students

Zane Reif


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Download a PDF of Building Community Through Physical Space.

Photos are courtesy of Zane Reif and were taken by 11 transfer students as representation of community building.  

Reif core competenciesA successful transition from the community college environment to a four-year institution requires a student to become acclimated to campus via social connections, academic interest or focus, faculty interaction, student support services, involvement opportunities, campus climate, and general aesthetics, to name a few. In particular, the physical environment is an important factor because it is often the first thing students are exposed to upon arrival to a college campus, whether as part of an initial campus tour or orientation session. Students are drawn to the beauty, cleanliness, and friendliness of green spaces, buildings, and people who make up the campus community. Ernest Boyer studied campus life and concluded that the appearance of the campus was one of the biggest factors influencing a prospective student’s decision to enroll. If the physical environment is as significant to a student’s first impression of campus, college administrators need to understand the individual characteristics and attributes that encompass these various surroundings and how they can be created or transformed for a more ideal environment.  

The college union has the ability to be a valuable tool in helping students feel a deeper connection to their transfer institution, especially those transferring from a community college environment where these types of facilities may not exist or be as prevalent. If a sense of community can be created within or around specific facilities such as a college union, transfer students may be better able to interact with fellow students and engage in activities or programs. The 2014 edition of The American Community College indicated that large populations of community college students are seeking to transfer to four-year institutions. Therefore, it is important that these individuals feel like they matter once they arrive at their four-year institution and that they have adequate and appropriate space to interact with other students on campus. 

The study of physical space is difficult. Numerous variables exist, such as the surrounding culture, prevalent architecture, or general aesthetics associated with the area. This doctoral study attempted to illuminate various physical spaces within and around a particular facility on the University of North Texas campus. Despite the study’s limited scope, its findings merit consideration for any facilities aiming to build community. 

Community Through Design

Reif 1 - community through designThe overarching premise of this doctoral study was to gain an understanding of how college unions can create community for transfer students from a community college during their initial exposure and enrollment at a four-year institution. The research examined specific observations and reflections of 11 recent transfer students to understand their experiences with community, especially because these students sought a connection or sense of belonging with their new institution. In addition, the study analyzed the physical layouts and aesthetics of the college union to see if common attributes existed for community building. More specifically, the study was a participatory action research project or “self-reflective inquiry undertaken by these participants in social relationship with one another in order to improve some condition or situation with which they are involved,” as Bruce Berg described in Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. In this instance, the action component was the discussion of a new facility and how changes could be made to improve physical space for social interactions and involvement opportunities. The interviews were coded to find common themes, and the data were used to determine how the college union’s physical space was designed and arranged to create community. 

reif community through design 2Pictures and interviews were presented in two distinct parts within the study: 1) students photographed community within the college union, and 2) they were asked to reflect on and discuss concepts related to the physical environment and human interaction within those spaces. Each section utilized visual ethnography, data interpretation, and dialogue from individual participants to present the findings. The 11 participants discussed factors in the development of physical space to make it ideal for community building. The factors mentioned included characteristics of home and work; the physical layout of the space related to architecture and aesthetics; the activities and events taking place within those areas; the ability to observe those activities without actual participation; the convenience of or access to resources and support functions; the overall campus climate, dictated by years of cultural formation; and the significance of history and representation of that history throughout the facility. All 11 participants confirmed that physical spaces, especially within the college union, were instrumental in the formation of community on a college or university campus. Additionally, all students indicated that while conditions were not ideal for community within the current facility, they were able to transform these areas to make them useful for social interaction and other shared experiences. The manipulation or alteration of space became a key component for these transfer students when conditions related to aesthetics and architecture were not ideal or missing completely.  While this manipulation can refer to physical items like the movement of furniture, wall panels, and vegetation, it can also refer to a reutilization of the space other than its intended purpose. For example, if students feel that a dining area is best utilized for a music rehearsal or group meeting, they have manipulated the original purpose or intent of the area to meet their social needs. 

reif community through design 3Images are powerful. The visual nature of the doctoral study was important because without pictures of spaces, descriptions and data of the physical environment are hard to distinguish or vocalize. Students were asked to identify community through imagery because it connected them to the study and provided genuine responses about the college union. They did not have to concentrate on where community was taking place because they were able to focus on why and how community was prevalent within these spaces. The study of community and the physical environment is much easier when the spaces are real. While the imagery from the spaces was special, students indicated that the people in the photographs were just as important because community cannot happen without a group of people coming together to share an experience. Students indicated the college union was a unique space that allowed them to experience social interaction in a number of different ways: retail components, student affairs offices, events and programs, and lounge spaces. This study not only showed that the college union does have a profound impact at an institution of higher education; findings also revealed the union can be even more powerful as a beacon for community when it is thoughtfully designed and effectively managed to change with the campus culture.

Community Through Culture 

community through culture 1The definition of community varies from person to person and researcher to researcher. In developing this study, community was at the forefront of thought and discussion, because it drives decisions and processes within a college union. ACUI’s definition  is widely considered and distributed within the college union administration field. It states that community is “a broad vision for campus life that allows all groups and individuals to learn, grow, and develop to their best potential in a challenging, yet safe environment.” For growth and development to happen, the college union must be inclusive, flexible, able to handle conflict, focused on the individual, and a continuous process.

In 1998, the Journal for Specialists in Group Work examined various barriers to building community on a college campus, such as the expansion of diversity, growth in commuter populations, the development of technology, increased institutional size, and changing faculty roles. While the college union can do little but cope with the growth in institutional size or the transformation of the faculty culture, the other obstacles can be overcome by preparing physical spaces to meet the demands of a changing student population. Many of the participants commented on how much they valued diversity and representation of history and traditions within the college union. In this instance, the facility was able to provide not only exposure to various elements of community, but also promote involvement and engagement in discussions and activities centered on the development of community. By taking advantage of programs and services within the college union, students were putting themselves in a situation to discuss and appreciate diversity through art, social interactions, and visual representation of history. 

community through culture 2While this study focused on the physical environment, specifically within a college union, it is worth noting that other variables can factor into overall satisfaction. A college union can only influence community if students feel comfortable and safe enough to enter the facility. According to the participants, one of the most influential moments in their college union experience was that first exposure. Because they used words such as “intimidating” and “confusing” to describe this initial interaction with the facility, it is important for that to be changed through a renovation of the exterior façade or the creation of more welcoming landscaping. In Educating by Design, Carney Strange and James Banning are quick to assert that physical factors such as building exteriors and landscaping are instrumental in the recruitment of students. Incoming students must see people interacting and walking into or out of various facilities to appreciate the community taking place. Additionally, benches and grassy areas around facilities like the college union must be inviting and conducive to congregating. As Gwen Drury stated in a 2011 Bulletin article, “A union needs to be a people-magnet to fulfill its purpose, and a union’s social program goes a long way toward bringing people together. A building can either help the process or hinder it.” 

Overall, the participants indicated that they were easily able to locate physical spaces both inside and outside of the college union where community was taking place. While participants were introduced to ACUI’s definition of community, many were able to define community by discussing how spaces within the college union were magnetic for themselves and their peers. Although perhaps not ideal for the development of community, participants saw the union as their place; they took ownership of it. Whether it was through the alteration of space, the presentation of programs, or selective involvement, they felt like they had an opportunity to be a part of the community within the facility.


implications 1This doctoral study has an opportunity to significantly enhance the understanding of physical space related to community building. By incorporating photographs into this study, a critical instrumentation tool was applied that is missing in other studies looking at community building within college unions. Similarly, participant interaction is an underutilized strategy when studying community building with college unions. 


College Planning & Manage-ment’s 2013 College Construction Report found that behind science laboratories, college unions were some of the highest costing capital projects in the country because of their sheer size. In addition to new construction, college unions are seeing significant increases in renovations, which “run the gamut from simple gathering and food service areas to theaters, bowling alleys, fitness centers, and the like,” the report indicated. With $9.7 billion spent on construction and $1.3 billion spent on the renovation of various facilities in 2012, the business of capital planning has become a hot and closely watched topic at institutions of higher education. According to the report, in the last 10 years, there has been a steady increase in the cost of square footage per facility, so college administrators are growing increasingly critical and will continue to monitor how productive these buildings are in meeting the needs of the
student population.

At the University of North Texas, the Board of Regents sought to support a $128 million renovation and expansion of the University Union. In an effort to increase enrollment, the college union was seen as a vital campus facility that would not only attract the best and brightest students, but also retain them. In 2004, a College Planning & Management article reported that college unions were becoming mixed-use facilities, and while typically these buildings have functioned for activities and events, more academic classrooms were being added to the facilities. At the University of North Texas, the administration tried to follow in this trend by designing a facility that will be multifunctional and serve not only as the main gathering area for social interaction, but also as an area for academic integration. “Buildings with singular functions, such as student centers, classroom buildings, residence halls, dining facilities, libraries, etc. are giving way to mixed-use buildings that incorporate many of the same types of services that student centers did in the past,” the College Planning and Management article explained. To justify the cost of such facilities, increased flexibility of physical spaces has become a necessity.

implications 2While total construction project numbers have dipped recently, College Planning & Management estimated that this trend will continue as the recruitment of incoming students becomes even more competitive. Additionally, ACUI’s Physical Place on Campus findings reported an increase in the number of college union projects over the last decade, indicating that all of the facilities that were built or renovated in the 1970s are coming due for an upgrade or reinvention. In an effort to design the most effective spaces, college union administrators are using techniques such as the Socially Ergonomically Environmental Design (SEED) checklist to guide their efforts for maximum space utilization. Additionally, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) group has encouraged many campuses to track “green” practices throughout the facility to lower the operational costs of a college union. Many architectural firms are beginning to hire college union experts who will not only help sell the referendum or need for expansion to students, but also design spaces that are optimal for flexibility and transformability within a 50-year renovation or construction cycle. 

Postsecondary Institutions

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a record 24.2 million students were expected to attend a two-year or four-year college or university in 2012. In the last decade, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board rose 40% in public institutions and 28% in private institutions, the center reported. With these increases and financial investment, students and their families will increasingly question decisions made about campus facilities. A postsecondary education is an expensive investment, and students are becoming more careful with these investments as they begin to shop for different forms of higher education. “To best recruit and retain students, universities need to evaluate how they offer a student life experience that prepares students to be healthy and dynamic people in the future,” author Brad Lukanic asserted in a 2014 Fast Company article. While higher education institutions have known for quite a while that the dynamics for funding and education delivery are rapidly changing, they have more recently started paying attention to physical spaces and how they can impact the student life experience. 

The union is centrally located on campus for initial exposure to the college or university. By increasing the resources and options within the facility, administrators hope that students will not only be enticed to campus, but stay on campus for longer periods of time, Lukanic explained. These facilities must be reinvented to support the academic mission in a variety of ways. Whether through additional classroom space or helping increase the value of the overall student life experience, college unions are becoming critical tools in overall student satisfaction. 

Lukanic introduced five predictions for higher education:

  1. Academic curricula will become more multidisciplinary.
  2. Educational leaders will need to balance MOOCs and traditional learning.
  3. Student recruitment and retention will be more important than ever.
  4. Higher education needs to invest in technology.
  5. Higher education will explore new funding models. 

In all of these considerations, the idea that higher education institutions must be flexible and creative in using their resources is the prevalent lesson.

Strategic planning is essential. The lessons learned from the creation or reinvention of college union space can be beneficial for college and university decision-makers, providing insight into the trends and desires of the current generation of students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, expenditures for campus capital projects alone were expected to exceed $483 billion in 2012. It is important for colleges and universities to place monetary support in places that will ultimately increase student satisfaction. While college unions will not always be on top of the list for consideration, administrators must think about the impact of these facilities and others that are also instrumental in creating an inviting collegiate experience. The educational delivery and workforce priorities might vary; however, the need for physical spaces and facilities that support the overall academic mission will always be valuable for creating a well-rounded and welcoming experience at these higher education institutions. 

Future Research 

This study was limited to one institution and one college union within the southwestern United States. Since it is easily replicable, it would be interesting to note if the priorities or perceptions established by the study participants interviewed at the University of North Texas are consistent with those of transfer students at other four-year institutions. This information could help establish parameters of physical space and ultimately confirm theoretical concepts introduced by Strange and Banning in their discussion of the environment. Additionally, this study could be replicated at other campus facilities, such as dining halls and recreation centers, to see if the priorities for community are consistent from facility to facility on the same campus.

A longitudinal study could be conducted with this study’s participants to determine if their opinions and values change upon entry into a newly constructed college union facility. If these values and preferences change in the new facility, it would be interesting to see if opinions were a result of new design techniques or a change in the campus culture. If students are satisfied with the new facility, it would be helpful to understand what changes were the most impactful and relevant to the formation of community on campus. 

Since transfer students from two-year institutions were utilized in this study, a replication of the same study using first-year native students would be of interest to see if the conditions for community differ between the two groups. Additionally, almost all of the participants in this study were heavily involved in the campus community, which is not consistent with literature about community college transfer students, which indicates they are drawn more to connections with academics than involvement in activities and student organizations. These students did not exhibit much, if any, transfer shock in acclimating to their new institution. If the college union was beneficial in reducing transfer shock, a study should be conducted to see if resources offered within this facility are vital to limiting transfer shock.

Finally, a study could be conducted that weighs or gives value to individual characteristics that were the most important in the development of community within a college union. This study would be useful for college union administrators in the future design of physical space or the transformation of current conditions. In this study, participants were able to indicate their preferences and why they felt certain characteristics were more important than others, but they were not asked to rate or further evaluate their responses past their initial suggestions. Collectively, patterns have started to develop that indicated checklists such as the Socially Ergonomic Environmental Design (SEED) are helpful in the development of physical space. 


Zane ReifZane Reif, Ph.D., is the senior director for the University Union, Gateway Center, and Coliseum at the University of North Texas. He has been a member of ACUI since 2001 and currently volunteers on the ACUI Research Program Team. He recently earned his doctorate in higher education from Texas Tech University, and this article is based on the results of his dissertation research.