Student Life: Defining Your Campus Culture

Categories: Insight

Live Eat Play - Residence common space, eating in a social setting and students enjoying time together
Withrow Hall Exterior
Withrow Hall Common Space

The higher education experience is focused on developing academic and career skills, but a crucial component of that is the opportunity to acquire competent life skills.

Aspiring college students weigh several decision factors in selecting the right college. These include affordability, availability of a desired academic program, institutional reputation and quality and potential career opportunities. However, one of the most underrated and subliminal determinates to choosing a college and staying at that college is the quality of its student life. Colleges and universities have the unique opportunity and responsibility to create physical spaces and planned environments where students will independently make major life decisions for the first time. Some of these decisions are formal and infrequent, many are informal and daily, like what to choose for a major versus where to hang out with friends.

In your pursuit to enhance student life and define your campus culture, we encourage you to examine how your students LiveEat and Play.


It should come as no surprise that student life at your institution has evolved over the past few decades. Gone are the days when dormitories occupied your campus as nothing more than a facility for students to retreat to and rest when they needed to escape their academic responsibilities. Your residence halls have graduated to keystones on campus, essential to student life and defining your campus culture. Today, they function like satellite student centers, representing academic and social hubs that provide multi-functional spaces designed to engage and promote developmental growth.

Today’s residence halls are best realized through the variety of common spaces designed to encourage intentional and informal student engagement. Walk into a modern, or newly renovated, residence hall and you’ll often find yourself in an expansive lobby that serves as a congregational catch-all. Designed to incorporate everything from semi-private study spaces to Saturday night foosball tournaments, these spaces play a vital role in encouraging first-year students to step out of their room – and their comfort zone – to navigate the campus culture in an approachable, familiar environment.

In addition to these heavily-trafficked common areas, smaller, more secluded spaces can be integrated throughout the floors to provide a greater level of privacy for one-on-ones and small group get-togethers. These spaces serve the added benefits of utilizing potential “dead space” in a design and allowing flexibility for future conversion if needed.

Whether intentional or informal, common spaces are best supported by a design approach that promotes extended lines of sight to allow students to engage at a distance and observe activity without visual obstruction, while also drawing in plenty of natural daylight to create a bright and inviting space. Materials and finishes designed to mitigate intrusive noise can also be used to prevent sound generated within the space from spilling into adjoining rooms.

Beyond the walls of your residence halls, student life represents the cultural identity of your campus. This identity is further crafted by the relationship, function and design of the auxiliary facilities that support academic learning and growth.


The Millennial and Gen Z student body has a significantly different preference for what attracts them to and keeps them engaged in the campus community than previous generations of students. One of the most significant changes is the value of food on campus, just as the role of food has evolved within the larger society. Today’s college-age students have grown up with a world of fast food, but also a world of food diversity filled with conversations about organic, sustainable and ethnic specialties. 21st century students simply regard food differently and many consider themselves “foodies.”

Ultimately, their appreciation for food as a cultural experience is changing the face of campus food service and the central role it plays in student life. Food has become a symbol of community and this new generation of students seek a common sense of purpose in the ritual of dining. It inherently raises the level of engagement, interaction and self-expression. Are your dining experiences an expression of your increasingly diverse community?

Dining commons have evolved to a more restaurant-oriented retail experience, centered around the performance of seeing fresh food prepared as it’s ordered. Large commons are visually and spatially divided into cuisine-specific mini restaurants or ethnic marketplaces that reflect different cultures and communal experiences. Providing the chance to customize and “have it your way” with multiple options like an omelet bar, stir fry station or deli buffet, as well as stations for specialty diets, increases student participation and satisfaction through this increasingly important campus communal activity.

Upholstered booths, banquettes and attractive ambiance and lighting create an environment that’s become a calling card for high student participation, producing higher revenues for your institution, as opposed to off-campus restaurants drawing students away. Finally, a connection to the outdoors through sunlit patios and terraces add to the customized dining quality by providing the ability for groups of students to choose their communal experience.


We know from years of research that what students learn about themselves, others and the world around them is significantly influenced by who they interact with and where this interaction occurs – and it’s largely outside the classroom. Spaces designed to promote unplanned activity and incubate a rich culture should engage your students, encourage connections and foster a sense of community. These diverse experiences within campus facilities give your students the opportunity to strengthen their ability to develop positive relationships and exercise leadership skills in preparation for post-college life in business and within their communities and neighborhoods. These spaces should serve as the laboratory for social learning.

Your institution’s need to emphasize student life and develop a thriving campus culture is amplified by the intense competition among colleges and universities to recruit and retain students and faculty. The education marketplace demands differentiation. Smart institutions have intentionally developed facilities that open their campus to new ideas, encourage diversification and promote a broader world view. These spaces form the foundation for the distinguishing characteristics that differentiate and promote an individual campus. Define your campus culture by focusing on student life.

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