03/08/2022 • 3 min read

Places Where Students Feel They Belong

How to design higher ed spaces that foster connection

by Haworth, Inc.

What happens when higher ed students feel a sense of belonging? They feel valued. They’re more likely to be engaged. And they’re more likely to thrive and succeed. At Haworth, we’ve worked with several universities to design places that help students engage socially and academically. Here are 3 things we’ve discovered about creating spaces in higher ed that bring students together. 

Culture is a Conscious Effort

When Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) outgrew its student commons, administrators knew they had to do more than simply build a bigger space. With a large number of students who commute, administrators were very intentional about creating a space that supports a culture of connection.  

NNU’s new two-story Conrad Student Commons building is designed as a self-contained, full-service environment that includes a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces to support a range of activities and services. These include a large lobby, dining hall, lounge areas, meeting rooms, offices for staff and student organizations, and an auditorium. The building also houses the Journeys Outfitting Company, which equips students for outdoor experiences by providing gear, bike repair services, and activity planning.  

By housing a variety of activities and services in the same building, the Conrad Commons becomes a hub for students and faculty. Administrators succeeded in providing a space where the student culture thrives. 

Graphic icon representing connect, think, inform and do

Spaces that Foster Connection

The Conrad Commons serves as the front door to NNU’s campus—accessible to all students. The variety of spaces and services gives everyone a reason to make both planned and impromptu visits to the Commons. This arrangement provides opportunities to collaborate in a variety of ways—what we call collaborative modes—which categorize the four main reasons we gather:

To connect socially

To think together

To do something specific

To inform one another

Whether students are hanging out in a lounge area by the fireplace or collaborating with a group in a large meeting room, a mix of organic shapes and finishes helps create a more residential feel. A wall of two-story windows allows abundant natural light to flood the Conrad Commons. These elements, in combination with seating and tables that support multiple postures, create an atmosphere where students can feel relaxed and more open to creating connections with others.  

We have also worked with a higher ed and medical institution where we helped create spaces that facilitate connections to foster collaborative learning. For example, some meeting rooms are designed for small groups of future doctors to conduct practice exams. A bed for the actor playing the patient simulates a real exam room while a large table, whiteboards, and large monitor help facilitate discussion among medical students.

No matter what subjects students study, spaces designed to foster connection where they gather and learn enhance their social and educational experience. 

Harness the Power of Light

Discover trends, considerations, and inspiration for well-lit spaces.

Flexibility Makes Spaces More Usable

Colleges and universities that want to make the most of their real estate build spaces that can be easily adapted to for multiple uses. The most effective designs allow students to rearrange furnishings from hour to hour as they desire and allow reconfiguration for larger events. For example, in Conrad Commons, mobile furniture in the main lobby was easily moved to the perimeter to create a dance floor when students held a sock hop. At these higher ed institutions, seating and tables on casters make it easy for students to gather in groups of any size.

For students, the ability to rearrange spaces to support their activities lets them know that their needs and preferences matter. The decision by a university to make spaces engaging for students sends a clear message that each student belongs there. When they feel a sense of belonging, students feel accepted and a part of campus life—two things that promote success in college.  

Plus, the flexibility to rearrange spaces for both small student gatherings and large planned events allows higher educational institutions to make the most of their limited resources while providing a variety of experiences and spaces where students can connect.  

More Higher Ed Spaces

Explore Haworth’s work in higher education spaces, with our case studies from Northwest Nazarene University, Western Michigan University, and Davenport University.


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