Hybrid Student Unions: The Future of Community Building

Hybrid approaches to higher education are having their heyday as schools continue to grapple with a pandemic-haunted world.

Combining virtual and physical instruction, hybrid models may better suit diverse learning styles and accessibility requirements. In doing so, they boost learning outcomes: Researchers conducting a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Progressive Education found hybrid learning to have a significant positive effect on academic achievement.

Based on their findings, the authors suggested that “The use of hybrid learning in educational environments should be encouraged, and the necessary infrastructure and facilities should be provided.” To that end, the hybrid educational model may not be a trend at all — but the way of a future reimagined to best meet student needs.

For example, if the student union is the “living room of campus,” is it the responsibility of college union and student activities professionals to make its resources as inviting and comfortable as possible to all students, regardless of whether their academic instruction occurs virtually or in-person?

The actions of several colleges and universities seem to answer in the affirmative:

  • The University of Maryland’s Student Org Resource Center (SORC) is providing virtual support for the Fall 2022 semester via live chat and email. Through these resources, students can learn how to get involved, whether on campus or remotely. The virtual center also serves the school’s student organizations, which discuss remote offerings, work on plans for officer transitions and registration, and navigate online elections.
  • At the University of California–San Diego, students can visit a virtual student union for counseling, psychological, and legal services. They can take video-based yoga classes hosted by the school’s recreation center and listen to student-curated Spotify playlists. Virtual museums, art platforms, and giveaways keep students engaged, even from a distance. In addition, optional orientation events via Zoom direct international students to support resources and provide information on cultural adjustment and self-care.
  • During the pandemic, the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Florida unveiled a “living website” and digital hub. “Welcome to your virtual Gator student experience,” said Dr. D’Andra Mull, the university’s vice president for student affairs, in this video. “We know that, even from afar, there are programs and services that are vital to your success. To make sure you don’t miss a thing, we’ve created the virtual student union just for you…We are learning to take on this new challenge right along with you, so let us know if you have suggestions for what we can add or how this site might best serve you.”
  • The Virtual Student Union at the University of St. Thomas also empowers students to connect with the school and fellow students remotely. The site offers everything from self-paced Blackboard and Zoom tutorials and tips for online learning to virtual student activities. Interestingly, the school also provides online resources for faculty to guide them in creating online courses, building content, proctoring online tests, and interacting with students virtually.

Other Uses and Approaches

While other schools may not have official virtual counterparts to their physical student union locations, many still leverage digital capabilities to enhance the student experience. For example, the University Student Union at California State University–Northridge, may not have a virtual union in name but aims to foster a sense of belonging through connection, engagement, and community building in the form of virtual events, programs, and services.

Virginia Tech, on the other hand, recently unveiled TimelyCare, a virtual program offering mental health and wellness resources. “We know that mental health is a critical component of overall well-being,” said Frances Keene, interim vice president for student affairs, in an August 2022 press release. “TimelyCare services complement our existing mental health services and educational programming by giving students a robust and flexible way to use technology to seek out support 24/7.”

Schools with a worldwide presence are also tapping into virtual resources to better serve students. The University of Maryland Global Campus, part of the University System of Maryland, offers its military and veteran community access to the Vessey Virtual Student Union. Named after General John W. Vessey, Jr., a UMGC alumnus, the digital communication and networking space is designed to ease the transition to civilian life by connecting with peers who have served in the military and working with the school’s military advisors, among other resources.

Like any virtual student union, these resources help meet a diverse set of student needs and enhance the student experience — both critical pillars in the role of the college union.


  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email (cpreusler@thewymancompany.com) with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.