Student Center Equity by Design: Where Intention Meets Impact

Readers of The Bulletin know well what is at stake in a campus student center. As the community hub for the entire university, it is the cultural home for everyone on campus. The orientation toward learning and discovery is part of what makes university communities so different from every other kind of community. 

“Belonging” is a visceral experience. We all know when we don’t belong and when we do. More often than not, we receive the message before we can even describe it. If you feel right at home, it may never occur to you to put words to it. Architects and designers are equipped with a spatial vocabulary that provides insight into what may be a welcoming environment and what may not be. The barriers to inclusion can stifle the core aspects of identity for one group while proving completely imperceptible to another, so it is incumbent upon any design team to understand why an environment is or is not welcoming to everyone.

If student center spaces are going to be truly welcoming for everyone on campus, universities should expect and demand a design process that is inclusive, equitable, and representative. Designers must bring all the creativity, talent, and humanity to soliciting, listening, eliciting, and understanding the perspectives that will create a cultural home among student center spaces. Underrepresented voices must be heard and valued. People from all walks of life must be empowered to collaborate on equal footing. 

Achieving equitable student center environments cannot be left to chance. These public spaces are just too important and have too much impact on campus communities. Community members rightfully expect to see their culture reflected in the spaces they inhabit, and they should expect to see themselves reflected in their design teams as well. If a design team’s thinking and processes are not intentionally inclusive, they risk becoming unintentionally exclusive.

The design of a student center lies at a highly visible crossroads of cultural intention and community impact. There is no single handbook of procedures that will guarantee success, and the design team’s role in solving a complex set of issues is specific to every institution, as it should be. However, design through the justice, equity, engagement, diversity, and inclusion (J.E.D.I.) lens offers the best, most innovative pathway to cross-cultural understanding and respect. In the following pages, we offer a call to action with considerations, lessons learned and best practices, and a set of student center case studies about curiosity and cultural competency.

Challenging the Status Quo

As in nature’s ecosystems, the resilience of a community derives from the collective ability to foster and safeguard relationships across divergent cultures, ideologies, traditions, and affiliations. Leaders must seek actively—that is, with culturally competent intention—to create spaces that acknowledge the vulnerabilities that stem from inequity and support the desire for independence and self-determination while strengthening a sense of belonging. “Do no harm” is simply an insufficient design imperative.

The extent of structural, institutional, and individual inequities is a result of the status quo and historical norms that are taught and experienced. To create equitable, inclusive, and representative design processes that lead to welcoming multi- and intercultural spaces, stakeholders must take responsibility for resisting complicity and apathy—we must challenge the status quo. This can be difficult and courageous work. It begins with initiating critical dialogue.

The aim of critical dialogue is to identify the key issues at stake for the members of the campus community and how they need and expect to access and use space in the student center. On college campuses, the range of issues may pertain to various aspects of identity, including gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and immigration status. In every case, equitable access to resources, relationships, and representation is the goal. Once issues are clarified, the dialogue needs to make any current barriers visible and collectively acknowledge that they exist. 

Space = Power

Allocation of space is a foundational step in the architectural design process, and it is here that leaders must create an opening for critical dialogue around values and barriers. Space is typically allocated by title, purpose, activity, or impact. Designers must ask if the allocation process is intentionally or unintentionally carrying forward a legacy of historical injustices and biases. At this stage, the designer should take responsibility for raising the question and building a more inclusive process around establishing an equitable principle of space allocation. The considerations that emerge will inevitably challenge the underlying principles driving existing allocations of space.

Space allocation is only one dimension of the design process. Other dimensions must include equitable access to the best characteristics that the design solution can offer. Outcomes should include, for example, equitable access to daylight and spaces for respite, whether the user is student, faculty, staff, or visitor. The impact of challenging the status quo in every consideration is a design solution that fosters physical and psychological well-being, enhances tolerance and showcases pluralism, advances individual and collective liberty, and cultivates insurgent acts of empathy. 

It can’t be said often enough: This is difficult, courageous work. Those responsible for the design of spaces need to be bold and ambitious in pushing their own creative and personal boundaries. Again, we need to bring all the talent and humanity to the process, practicing with love and widening a circle of empathy to include people that may be wildly different from ourselves. This work will prepare us to imagine solutions in unexpected places and unlikely forms. That’s the essence of the designer’s creative act and the foundation of its most necessary impacts.

From Dialogue to Co-Creation: Design Thinking’s Equity Tools

Good ideas come from empowered people. Everyone’s voice matters. To build an inclusive client-engagement process around establishing equitable design principles, allow at the outset the space and time for a patient rhythm to unfold. At the foundation is the process of building trust—especially with historically marginalized communities—and the generous amount of time required to earn it. 

Building trust with stakeholders requires authentic and deliberate representation. Composing design teams solely for optics undermines the design process before it has even begun, because underrepresented communities are highly attuned to superficial appeals to identity and culture. The goal is a process of co-creation and co-authorship, therefore, aligning team diversity with community representation is imperative and nonnegotiable. Stakeholders must see themselves reflected in their design teams. Expect moments of healthy tension and conflict along the way because they are part of discovery and creating common ground. Resolution emerges from mutual respect.

It is also critical to meet stakeholders where they are, whether by joining them in their own space or choosing the engagement tools that are most comfortable for them. The objective is an atmosphere of dialogue that minimizes threats to sharing and induces truly meaningful conversations. Once a safe space for critical dialogue is established, a path to co-creation is cleared. The design process should include a method for tracking the sharing and iteration of ideas, so the feedback loop with community participants is transparent. Transparency too is imperative for setting the tone of an inclusive design partnership and ensuring that all groups have agency over their ability to flourish and find community in their cultural home.

The design process must, of course, work within the structure of the university organization, but to challenge the status quo, it must build relationships, advocate for inspirational thinking, and facilitate consensus across multiple perspectives. When executed well, the process crystallizes an institution’s mission, vision, and shared organizational identity more quickly. 

An exemplary process makes it possible to implement inclusive and equitable design at all scales, from small projects and renovations to entirely new buildings. 

Equitable, diverse, and inclusive design solutions center around strong affirmations and appeals to identity. They underline belonging and relevance in the greater university community without the loss of individual identity. The process and considerations for the design of campus student centers must support safe spaces where being vulnerable is encouraged and finding a chosen family for cross-affinity connections is possible. There is no single handbook for success, but by leading with curiosity and valuing and empowering individuals and communities, a more authentic, inclusive, and healthy environment is likely to be achieved. Leaders know they have been successful when everyone who walks into the space knows immediately, viscerally, that they belong.

Case Studies

Silos to Synergy: Lory Student Center

Creating a diverse experience was central to the renovation of the Lory Student Center at Colorado State University. Previously siloed from each other across the building, the seven existing affinity groups within Student Diversity Programs and Services were brought together through an inclusive relocation process that inspired genuine conversations around identity. Now they all reside at the front entrance to the Lory Center, signaling to everyone on campus that they are welcome there. 

Diversity programs leaders originally expressed concerns about space allocation and preventing a “ghettoized” presence or lack of visibility. Before the relocation, the Asian Pacific and Native American Cultural Centers shared some cross-programming. The Women and Gender Advocacy Center and the GLBTQ2A Resource Center had a strong relationship. El Centro was accustomed to an active and visible location. The Black/African American Cultural Center wanted visibility while remaining a place of respite; and the Resources for Disabled Students needed an accessible location. Facilitating synergies among the different groups was essential to planning the right adjacencies. While each group enjoys its own space, the process further prompted them to explore new synergies for programming, celebrations, and sharing of administrative, meeting, and other resources. 

The designers took three important lessons from the process: 

  1. Communities value being able to maintain a cultural home, but they also seek safe interactions and collaborations with other groups. 
  2. Visibility for each affinity group needs to be more than a sign at
    the door. 
  3. Expressions of identity should be adaptable to changes in the community over time.

Learning from the Past: George Mason University Memorial to Enslaved Persons

The Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial at George Mason University is an example of an institution using history to change the future of its campus and the future of its culture. George Mason had embarked on an ambitious, multilayered project that included the Core Campus Project, addressing utilities and landscape improvements across the university grounds. In addition, the project scope included an unprecedented opportunity at the heart of the campus for a physical memorial to acknowledge, remember, and honor the people George Mason enslaved. Existing tributes to George Mason honor his contributions in the formation of the United States. The design partnership between the design team and the faculty, students, and staff saw an opportunity to frame a more complete picture of the university namesake’s legacy in the broader narrative of slavery in the United States.

The collaborative process joined an independent design effort with undergraduate research to yield an idea and build consensus around the project. This memorial’s acknowledgement of those whose lives and labor were as critical to the founding of the university as George Mason’s changes the campus and its culture forever. In combination with other work on the core campus, it more fully dignifies the university’s past and empowers the continuation of a critical dialogue that only just began in the course of the design process.

Representation Matters: Destination Crenshaw

Think of Crenshaw Boulevard corridor from the Tower theater to the late Nipsey Hussle’s Marathon Clothing as the college union of Black Los Angeles. We can learn about the intersection of intention and impact from the inclusive and representative process created for the design of Destination Crenshaw. 

Unable to halt the arrival of a new LA Metro rail line running at street level right through the middle of their neighborhood, Crenshaw community residents decided to turn the infrastructure project into an opportunity for them. A grassroots initiative was born to develop a counterstrategy to the displacement of businesses and gentrification trends that normally accompany new transit lines. Unlike traditional spaces dedicated to the public display of art and culture, this public gallery would not be contained by walls. The Crenshaw station would be an open-air public art and cultural experience that tells the countless and too-often-overlooked stories of African Americans’ contributions to Los Angeles and the world at large.

The design embodies the DNA of Black LA in support of continued cultural consciousness, helping future generations understand their heritage and take charge of their future. The design makes room for future art forms to emerge and flourish alongside established forms of art. It will further transform Crenshaw into a green, sustainable corridor in support of health and active lifestyles as well as a resilient economy based in self-determined security of land tenure.

The importance of representation of the community on the design team was essential. It demonstrated respect, invited trust through cultural connection and authenticity in the process of designing an unapologetically Black space for Black people. After decades of disinvestment, betrayal, and exclusion of community perspectives, this project is an exemplary execution of equitable development and community co-creation.

Vision from the Top: Emory University Student Identity Spaces

Emory University is in the process of revitalizing its Student Identity Spaces. University leaders have recognized the need to make substantial improvements and additions for affinity groups on campus. Leaders not only committed to renovating existing spaces for more meaningful occupancy, but also to allocating meaningful spaces for the groups while the new spaces are being constructed.

The process for both projects centered around student engagement at every stage. Student ambassadors were chosen from each of the identity groups: the Emory Black Student Union, LGBT Life, Asian Student Center, the Center for Women, and Centro Latinx. In work sessions with each group over the course of many weeks, critical dialogue and co-creation led to a vision and design direction that ensured each group saw its values and needs reflected in a space that feels like home.

For these student communities, safe spaces to be themselves’ and organize for change were design priorities. They did not see their spaces as places to educate visitors. Flexibility in furniture and walls, accommodating a variety of functions and food, was also a priority for each group. With student participation occurring throughout this revitalization process, students and their voices will be embedded in every aspect of the design implementation, empowering them to have full agency over their space and how it is used.

Belonging at All Campus Scales: Oregon State University’s Corvallis Campus

Oregon State University has responded to the need for cultural resource centers through a common initiative to give underrepresented groups a place to call their own on a predominantly white campus. Located in various places across the Corvallis campus, these facilities include a center for the Asian & Pacific Islander community, the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, El Centro Cultural Cesar Chavez, the Ettihad Cultural Center, the Pride Center, and the Native American Center. While the centers have been successful for these various affinity groups, their dispersion throughout campus has meant that opportunities for representation beyond their respective locations and for gathering and mixing with other groups has been limited. The Memorial Student Union on the university’s main quad is the functional student center, but its formal neoclassical design limits interior gathering spaces and there is little transparency or communication with the comings and goings outside. 

The Corvallis Campus Vision responded to this need by facilitating cross-cultural connections and making a student center out of the campus itself. Its comprehensive physical framework plan is designed to guide future development for the campus overall and identified ways to bring all members of the university community together. The traditional university sporting events were not sufficient because they can feel uncomfortable for some groups in the university community because those events often don’t reflect the diversity of the campus community.

One key strategy for connection was leveraging the original formal quads, designed by the Olmsted Brothers and seen as the historic and iconic center of campus, as a place to serve as a magnet for members of the cultural resource centers. These quads tended to be used to navigate rather than linger, even though they are important campus symbols and well positioned to bring communities together at the heart of campus. The plan now provides for a range of activities in the quad spaces that are designed to bring people together. Movable furniture, hammocks, shaded spaces, and shelters designed to protect students  from inclement weather each create new incentives for students to use the quad as a gathering space. With the right incentives and support, the most important central spaces on a university campus can promote social activity and gathering and make the heart of campus the university’s cultural home. 

University of Delaware: Working with Constraints

At the University of Delaware, environmental and contextual cues signal social belonging in the student centers and welcome people of diverse identities. Within institutional budget constraints, a range of low- to moderate-cost inclusive design solutions were implemented. Renovations included ablution stations, all-gender bathrooms, a veterans’ lounge, lactation rooms, and wellness spaces. Additionally, Student Government Association co-sponsored career closet provides free professional attire for career fairs, interviews, networking events, and the workplace, and an esports arena gives students access to free high-quality gaming hardware and software.

Many low-cost initiatives centered on visuals and imagery. Student center entrance signage features welcome messages in multiple languages. Digital signage was redesigned to better represent the student body. In the main corridor of both student centers, an annual exhibit of international flags features the countries of origin of our current cohort of international students. The introduction of permanent artwork, wall murals, banners, and traveling displays throughout the centers celebrate a range of identities and cultures. Cameras and recording technology are now available to student organizations for broadcasting in-person meetings and events to students who are off campus. Finally, a new community blog, By the Green, captures student stories by showcasing digital artwork, drawings, paintings, photography, video, writing, and music. 

Social Equity and the Modern Campus

As an evolution of environmental and social justice movements of the last decade, social equity is of critical importance today. College unions and campus student centers are unique. No other building on campus bears the responsibility or carries the burden of creating a home for everyone. Building relationships and working toward a common goal is the ideal. Today’s campuses are places where people from a wide range of backgrounds come together through a shared desire to improve their situation or contribute positively to the world. To thrive as a community, each member must be able to thrive on their own terms and contribute in their own way.

As designers of the built environment, we are among the most accountable for the considerations of inclusion and equity in the spaces we plan and create. Designers must keep asking and learning what it is about the physical environment that supports or creates barriers to equitable opportunities and experiences in institution-specific contexts. Design teams have to take up the burden of representation and raise the questions that challenge the status quo, facilitate critical dialogue, reward curiosity and vulnerability, and lead to trusting relationships and mutual respect. The intentionality of the process matters, and the stakes are too high to leave the impact of the college union—the university’s cultural home—to chance.


  • Yanel de Angel

    Passionate about community resilience, environmental stewardship and building performance, de Angel has been instrumental in the development of Perkins&Will residential and student life practices. She believes inclusive and authentic engagements during the design process translate into spaces that embody community values leading to student empowerment and success.

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  • Anthony Doody
  • B. Jeffrey Stebar

    As Perkins&Will’s global higher education practice leader, Stebar has unique insights into the factors affecting higher education and the trends that are revolutionizing education across the globe. Stebar has become a renowned expert on student life facilities and leads the firm’s Student Life Practice. He brings 35 years of experience working on higher education projects, including the last 25 years focusing on college unions.

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  • Brodi Bain

    Brodie Bain regularly explored the city and the outdoors as a teenager, observing vistas, spaces, people, and places—while finding respite and inspiration. This led to residency in multiple regions and countries as well as interdisciplinary studies in architecture, sociology, psychology, landscape architecture, botany, and art. Bain leads campus planning at Perkins&Will, having found the perfect fit in programming, placemaking and the complexity involved with this work.

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  • Sumegha Shah

    Sumegha Shah brings 15 years of experience in student life design through her work on campuses across the world to help transform the student life experience. Her passion to impact education is driven by her experience growing up in India, where education and equity were precious commodities.

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  • TJ Willis

    TJ Willis, Associate Director of the NC State Student Centers, has over 18 years of experience in the college union in a variety of capacities, blending the areas of operations, programs, and retail to build synergy and bring the college union idea to life. This can also be seen through his work as a member of the editorial team for The College Union Idea, 2nd Edition and as a member of the ACUI Student Engagement Study research team.

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  • Gabrielle Bullock

    As director of global diversity at Perkins&Will, Gabrielle Bullock, offers unique insights into designing for diversity. Born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Bullock knew from the time that she was 12 that architecture would be her calling.

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