JanFeb2016 Cover
Volume 84 | Issue 1
January/February 2016

Intercultural Connection in the Student Union

Lauren Trujillo

Read the print version of this article.

According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report, the population of international students pursuing a college education in the United States increases annually and reached nearly 975,000 in the 2014–15 school year. While many international students successfully integrate into the American university environment, others may encounter social, psychological, and academic challenges to their integration, as reported in The Journal of College Counseling in 2008. This may affect their success and well-being. To help international students overcome these challenges, many universities have developed “internationalization” programs—faculty training, curriculum modifications, campus events, and student support services—to bring an intercultural dimension into the research, academic, and service functions of the institution. In addition to these efforts, the design of the built environment may offer the potential for deeper and more personal intercultural connections among domestic and international students to occur.

Research on the intersection between culture and academic architecture yields information on the design of classrooms, preferences of specific ethnicities on campuses outside of the United States, or the layout of K-12 schools. However, an informational void exists regarding how the built environment at American universities may support the integration of international students into the campus environment and support meaningful social connections among international and domestic students.

The purpose of this research was to explore how the design of the built environment at a midsize public university in the southeastern United States could support intercultural connections among international and domestic students. Though many campus places were studied, union professionals can benefit from understanding which design features within areas of the student union supported intercultural connections and which were preferred by both domestic and international students. These results may be used to inform the design of future student unions so they support the gathering of a more diverse student body and lead to more meaningful intercultural connections.

About the Study

The primary research question for this study was: How do the design features of the built environment of college campuses impact opportunities for intercultural connection among domestic and international students? The research involved a mixed-method approach utilizing a three-step process. First, a survey of domestic and international students identified the nonclassroom spaces on campus they most preferred and their preferences regarding the physical attributes of these spaces. Next, observation and behavioral mapping were conducted in the eight most preferred spaces to better understand how the physical attributes supported the activities of the users inside. Third, interviews of domestic and international students revealed the circumstances under which they interacted with students from different cultures and their perception of how the design of university spaces supported these interactions. The resulting quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive statistics, and the qualitative data were coded for emergent themes.

The survey sample consisted of 114 students and represented 17 different nationalities. Of this sample, 63 students (roughly one-third international students, two-thirds domestic students) had a nonclassroom interior place on campus in which they preferred to spend time. When asked questions about their most preferred campus space, survey data revealed that more than half of the international and domestic students discovered the space themselves (instead of being introduced to it by a friend, faculty member, or by attending an event there). The majority of international students visited their space nearly twice as often as their domestic counterparts but socialized less when there. When they did socialize, international students did so with people from different countries more than their domestic counterparts did. This agrees with previous literature indicating that international students tend to value intercultural contact more than domestic students.

Physical Attributes Supporting Intercultural Connection

The eight most preferred campus spaces included three libraries, a gym, a coffee shop, a learning commons, the student life center, and two lounges located in the student union. The student union is a collection of brick buildings connected by exterior courtyards and arcades located toward the center of campus, making it a popular thoroughfare that students walk regularly. The union contains restaurants, meeting and study spaces, ballrooms, a bowling center, artist studios, a night club, and places to host large campus events both indoors and outdoors.

Literature on the best practices of campus internationalization suggests many ways a university can reflect the value it places on diversity through its campus’s built environment, especially within its student union. For example, a 1992 Journal of Architecture Education article recommended using a variety of architectural styles on campus and placing ethnic art and multilingual signage throughout. A 2000 case study published in New Directions for Community Colleges described the hanging of flags of the world along the student union’s perimeter while multicultural events were held inside. Though these features and events may be effective examples of a campus’s multicultural identity, a 2009 article in Social Issues and Policy Review asserted that they often result in quick, forced, and superficial intercultural contact. No such objects, cultural artifacts, or rituals were mentioned by any of the survey participants or interview subjects in this study.

By contrast, lounges facilitate serendipitous, voluntary, and natural intercultural connections because they function as intersection points that allow students of all nationalities to connect with each other with minimal effort. In the union studied, such lounges are on a common path of travel, easily accessible, free to enter, and open until late at night. They have recognizable features on the exterior and good visibility on the interior, so users can set up a meeting place in advance and spot their friends upon arrival.

Pleasant and meaningful intercultural contact often occurs naturally when students from different cultures engage in activities such as accomplishing tasks, socializing, and relaxing together. Inside these lounges, students were observed studying and/or completing projects alone or with others. These lounges provide open floor plans and a variety of seating and work surfaces that are easily reconfigured to accommodate varying group sizes and tasks. They offer ample lighting (both natural and artificial) to support long hours of working and acoustic controls such as sound absorbing finishes and white noise so students can socialize without disturbing others.

In addition to accomplishing daily tasks in these lounges, students of different nationalities gathered with friends to discuss their day or plan their weekend, watch movies, play video games, drink, eat, or take breaks between classes or study sessions. Students also used these spaces to pass time (playing with their phones, engaging in social media, or online shopping), listening to music, or even sleeping. These spaces contained a variety of amenities that support relaxation such as expansive outdoor views, comfortable sofas and lounge chairs, refreshments, televisions, and free, secure wireless Internet. Once there, students could linger for as long as they wanted. Despite being from different cultures, the users of these lounges engaged in similar behaviors—task accomplishment, socializing, and restoration—that signaled they were attached to the spaces. Because these diverse users were attached to the same space where they chose to spend time, informal and voluntary intercultural contact inevitably occurred.

According to the literature, the attachment users feel to a place is closely related to the sense of community they feel there. In addition to campus spaces containing physical features that supported place attachment and intercultural connection, positive outcomes that signaled a sense of community were observed as well. The sense of community observed on campus seemed to develop because users shared the same space, followed the unwritten rules inside, and felt comfortable expressing themselves there. For example, though the lounges appeared to have enough furniture to support the needs of the users, seats near electrical outlets were the most popular. Users would move all of their belongings and switch seats if a table near an outlet became available. It was also common for strangers to share a table so both could use the nearby outlet. They would then put their feet or belongings on a central coffee table or idly watch the same television.

In most of the observation sites, users followed the unwritten rules of the spaces. They trusted others enough to leave possessions unattended, preserved the accepted noise level inside (for example, not talking loudly in designated “quiet zones”), and respected the territory of other users too. For example, in one of the lounges, employees were loud and gregarious when there were fewer users inside; as the space filled up with users quietly studying, the employees spoke in more hushed tones and focused on their work.

Finally, the physical attributes of the lounges allowed users to come as they were and make the space their own. One interviewee described the lounge as being a place he could be himself, stating, “We don’t get yelled at for being too loud or having fun. … I can’t think of any time I felt uncomfortable in here.” Another student commented that she often met her friends at the union lounge because it was quiet and comfortable and they could stay as long as they liked. Observations also indicated that students felt free to make the space their own by rearranging the furniture or asking the employees for items they needed to make their stay more pleasant or productive.

Different Cultures, Similar Priorities

In addition to providing data specific to the student union, the results also provided the clearest insight into the preferences of international students compared to their domestic counterparts about other campus places. As shown in the table on p. 41. these preferences are listed in order of priority for the specific student group. International and domestic students generally agreed that physical attributes such as lighting, cleanliness, and choice of seating were high priorities and that access to technology, pleasant aroma, and comfortable furniture, though important, were lower priority.

Survey data also revealed that some physical features present in the campus spaces were preferred by international students, some were preferred by domestic students, and some were preferred by both groups. These features are shown in the Venn diagram on p. 42. In agreement with their priorities, international and domestic students preferred spaces with comfortable ambient conditions and furniture, access to technology, and a variety of furniture options.


Though this study was limited to one campus of a public university in the southeastern United States, it provides good practices for all campus locations and student union spaces specifically. Certain physical attributes that may be included in the design of a campus’s student union to support intercultural connection and attachment for its users are:
  • A location in close proximity to the center of campus and on a common path of travel
  • Exterior features that are easy to recognize
  • Spaces which provide access to views of campus events, nature, and natural light
  • Architectural features which allow for privacy and visibility
  • Circulation systems such as hallways that allow users to find their way easily and interact with others
  • Favorable ambient conditions such as cleanliness, temperature/humidity, ample lighting, acoustics, and aroma
  • Access to amenities such as food and beverages, free Wi-Fi signal, outlets, and charging stations
  • Free and easy access during daytime and evening hours
  • Comfortable, easy to clean, and moveable furniture
  • A variety of furniture types
Because intercultural connection is most meaningful to participants when it arises voluntarily and naturally, university designers must carefully consider the impact that the built environment may have on supporting such serendipitous encounters. While each student on the university campus has unique preferences, experiences, and goals, the physical attributes identified through the study may help create campus spaces for these students to share themselves and their cultures in a supportive and empowering environment.


Lauren TrujilloLauren Trujillo, ltrujillo1117@yahoo.com

Lauren Trujillo completed her bachelor’s degree in interior design in 2006 and her Master of Fine Arts degree in interior design in 2014, both at Florida State University. She has practiced both commercial and residential design, and received her interior design state license in 2011. Currently, she is an adjunct instructor in Tampa, Fla.