Tradition and Innovation: Updating Student Engagement in the College Union

Institutions of higher education have a paradoxical relationship with change. While steeped in tradition, these institutions are often on the cutting edge of research, innovation, and social justice. The contrast of history and progress offers considerable dynamic tensions that fuel the college experience. We struggle with questions like, “How can knowledge of the past be used as a springboard into the future?” “What can be learned from the mistakes and successes in the history of humankind?” And, “How does the lens of our history inhibit our ability to envision a different future?” 

Nowhere are the challenges presented by this paradox more evident than in the college union. The historic premise that undergirds the union is that, if provided a place and opportunity to interact with their fellow students, college students can have substantive and integrative learning experiences. How does this premise hold up in the light of today’s college students who are less prone to interact as previous generations did?

The modern college union can address these compelling questions by understanding how the preferences of Generation Z differs from those that have proceeded it—especially the Millennial Generation with whom they are so often confused. Stephen F. Austin State University has spent considerable time researching these issues and is now trying to apply that knowledge, coupled with experiential information witnessed onsite, to make programmatic and facilities changes.  

The Need for Engagement  
Depending on age, college leads to many different experiences. Whether a seasoned post-graduate or Millennial reader who left home to attend college, this experience likely involved saying goodbye to high school friends with a plan to make new friends on campus. Perhaps mailing addresses were exchanged in the hopes of keeping in touch, but few friendships could realistically be sustained in this way. If phone numbers were exchanged, the number probably rang to a landline specific to a residence hall room. This line would not be answered often because college was designed to draw individuals into engagement with each other. Without the ability to maintain close friendships back home, students had to make new ones or they would be without friends.  

The experiences of younger readers may offer a stark contrast to the experiences of previous generations. With the advent of technology, friends can maintain daily contact with one another if they wish. They can visit via Facetime as they walk from class to class and then send a quick “snap” while waiting for class to start. Technological advancements have changed the way people interact with their long-distance friends, and while these friends may be more accessible, this accessibility may not always lead to greater relational closeness.  

Technology also allows modern students to maintain a much larger circle of friends if they wish—but these friendships are often different from what would be considered friendship in the past. Robin Dunbar, psychology professor at Oxford University, in 1992 first theorized in “Neocortex Size as a Constraint on Group Size in Primates” (Journal of Human Evolution) that people can only maintain about 150 stable relationships, also known as Dunbar’s number. Though many likely have far more “friends” than this on social media, these relationships often end up broad but shallow, and perhaps even distort our perception of what a friendship really is. 

As students strive to form relationships in college, they are inhibited by a number of factors. They may feel less of a sense of urgency to form these relationships because of the regular contact with a large number of friendships they continue to maintain; they may also find that others are less interested in forming new friendships as well. Additionally, work by psychologist Jean M. Twenge has found that more time spent on smartphones and looking at screens leads to less in-person social interactions and a higher likelihood of reporting symptoms of loneliness and depression.  

In the fall of 2017, a video created by Cornell University freshman Emery Bergmann for a class project went viral. Her project vividly described the feelings of isolation she felt in her first year of college. She explains: “I guess I just assumed that I was going to have a million friends and I was just going to party all the time. But it’s not really like that.” To make matters worse, to Bergmann her contact with friends back home served as a constant reminder of the relationships she was missing. “The phone, sucks. You have this constant reminder of all my friends back home, how close we were and all the fun stuff we did together, so I guess that distance can really get to you,” she said. 

Recently the New York Times followed up with Emery Bergmann to see how she was doing. She wrote an opinion piece in which she looked back on her experiences in her first year. She wrote: “A year after making the film, I’ve settled in to college a lot better.” Among the lessons she learned was that, “Social media reinforces the notion that you should always be enjoying yourself, that it’s strange to not be happy, and that life is a constant stream of good experiences and photo-worthy moments. I taught myself that everyone’s college experience is different, and slowly, I started to embrace the uniqueness of my own.”  Adapting to a new environment often takes time, and many students have similar stories of feeling isolated and alone in the early days of their college years. But a lack of engagement with the institution is a significant cause for attrition. Students who leave one institution are less likely to complete a degree than those who stay.  

The college union can play a central role in the engagement of students. “Professionals working in college unions contribute to student success through positive, meaningful engagement of students in the co-curriculum by providing leadership programs, student employment opportunities, college union governance, student organization leadership positions, community volunteering experiences, and others,” wrote Thomas Lane and Brett Perozzi in the journal New Directions for Student Services. This kind of engagement yields significant benefits to both students and the institutions they attend, including academic performance, persistence, and even the development of higher order thinking skills. In the realm of cocurricular experiences, students are often enticed to participate by the promise of connecting with one another. If we want to be successful, we’ll need to make sure that our message is designed for the current generation of students.     

Getting them Involved 
A tried and true method of getting students engaged with each other and the institution is through involvement in cocurricular experiences. The college union is replete with such experiences. Additionally, because of the central importance of student engagement in the mission of the college union, these experiences are typically better resourced than a lot of other student-led experiences. The challenge used to be how to differentiate these experiences for students and attract them to participate in a sea of other opportunities. More recently, the challenge for many has been how to entice students to participate at all.  

A traditional way to attract members to cocurricular experiences is through involvement fairs, open houses, or setting up tables in high-traffic areas and turning student leaders into carnival barkers yelling at passing students as they hurry to class. These methods are popular because they generally work. But few stop to consider for whom they do not work: For example, introverts. While introversion and extraversion tend to be relatively stable personality traits that are not wholly subject to environmental factors, it would be hard to question that technology frequently draws us into our inner world in ways that create resistance to involvement. From students wearing earbuds that shut out the world as they traverse the campus to a more general discomfort with the basics of human interaction in the non-virtual world, the process of drawing students into involvement activities is in desperate need
for an update.  

For more than 10 years Stephen F. Austin University has sought to engage students through our Involvement Centers (This program was featured in the September 2009 edition of The Bulletin). One is located strategically in a key first-year residence hall and the other in the Baker Pattillo Student Center. These locations not only enhance the visibility of cocurricular opportunities, but also demonstrate to students and families to see the importance of involvement at the university. By offering one-on-one involvement advising appointments, students can select experiences that are compatible with their interests, abilities, time, and learning goals.  

When considering how to update the process for onboarding students into involvement experiences, many have offered technological solutions. These can certainly be effective and should be pursued when appropriate. But it is important to recognize that while there is a tendency to think of modern students as exclusively preferring online resources, “Despite their widespread use of potential reliance on technology to communicate, Generation Z students still find in-person communication to be valuable. Our study revealed that 83% of Generation Z students prefer face-to-face communication because it allows them to connect better and read the other person,” Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace wrote in their 2016 book Generation Z Goes to College

Stephen F. Austin recently launched a new twist to involvement advising called advising-on-the-go. In this new model, the student leaders contact the interested students and meet in more casual settings, like on- or off-campus coffee shops or the lobby of their residence halls. This casual format allows students to feel more comfortable with the experience, since they choose the environment in which the meeting will take place.     

SmartPhones, a Powerful Temptation 

It is comical how often educators bemoan the impact that smartphones are having on the present generation of college students, when a quick scan around at any professional conference will reveal that our use of technology often shows little difference. Participants read emails, send texts, and engage in social media during times designed for learning or social interaction. A particularly visceral example of this can be found in the 2015 NASPA convention that made headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Education when the use of an anonymous messaging app resulted in spreading what NASPA described as, “hateful posts made by a small number of users.” In short, we often suffer from the same challenges students face regarding the addictive attraction of technology.

Among the best opportunities for students to engage with one another in the college union is within dining facilities. It would be easy to observe on most campuses the negative effect that smart phones can have on students’ interactions in these settings. Groups of students gathered together at tables isolated from one another as they lose themselves in their phones raises the question: Why didn’t they just have lunch with the people they are texting?  

However, educators have offered few antidotes to this issue beyond simply criticizing students’ choices. There is a strong historical precedent for condemning undesirable student behavior. Socrates is quoted as writing about contemporary students more than 400 years B.C.E., saying, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” There is little doubt that Socrates would likely be willing to add “stare blankly at their smartphones at the dinner table” to his list of grievances. Suffice it to say, for a long time it has been the privilege of the old to critique the young.  

Beyond condemnation, institutions have to find practical solutions. Stephen F. Austin has a compelling one to offer. Like a lot of creative ideas, it originated with two diverse concepts coming together. Students have a need and desire for charging stations for their phones. An initiative of the Student Government Association provided funding for visually pleasing rapid charging stations that securely lock the student’s phone away so they are free to roam.  

There was some initial uncertainty about where these charging stations might be placed. Some suggested placement in high-traffic areas where they could be seen, others suggested that they could draw students to less-trafficked areas—but it was how students desired to spend the time waiting for their phone to be charged that created a novel solution to a problem that the group did not even know they wanted to solve. They wanted to eat.  

By placing the charging station at the entrance to dining facilities within the student center, students were encouraged to do something they might have not otherwise considered—to ditch their phones while dining with their friends. By meeting their needs, we were able to do something few would have imagined—to lock their phones up in a box while they had dinner. While anecdotal in nature, students have reported having more conversations with each other as a result—with a few making the use of the chargers at meals part of their daily routine.  

Drawing them Out  

A common challenge in the modern college union is that as expectations for these programs to function as auxiliaries has grown, funding both their own programs and often providing necessary revenue to the institution itself, there is a tendency for this priority to be reflected in the facility itself. Retail locations are located in busy areas of the building, with student programs often relegated to lesser traveled areas. Finding ways to encourage students to navigate the building in search of our programs is often a challenge.   

At Stephen F. Austin, the inspiration for our approach to addressing this issue came from a frequent sight on social media. Murals designed for the “selfie” generation have popped up in major cities and tourist locations. Many of these have become go-to destinations simply for the opportunity to take a photo there. Certainly encouraging individuals to navigate an entire city in pursuit or the perfect selfies is considerably more complex than enticing them to climb a flight of stairs or peek around a corner they might not have otherwise done.  

These “selfie spots” as they have been dubbed, draw students to student-centered programs. Often they are thematic to the program itself. For example, a quote from our university’s namesake Stephen F. Austin reads, “The journey is always hard, don’t give up.” This is located just outside of the Office of the Dean of Students–where students often come when struggling with one of the many challenges of college. A mural promoting diversity and inclusion is located near the Multicultural Center.  

The project has caught the attention of other areas of our campus. Many have responded with their own selfie stops.  Currently, a project is underway to create a digital map of selfie locations all over campus.  

Another example of ways to draw individuals into student centers can be found in the area of gaming. Over the past 40 years, college unions have seen the rise and fall of game rooms.  The popularity of video games in the 1980s sparked their ascension, then the availability of high-quality personal consoles contributed to their decline. While modern multiplayer video games can connect players from around the world, it can also draw college students away from engagement on campus.  

The current movement to embrace esports on campus represents a model for contemporizing the offerings of the union to deliver what students want, in ways that advance the engagement goals of the institution. Participants in the 2018 ACUI Annual Conference were treated to a tour of the University of California–Irvine’s esports arena, described as “first of its kind on a college campus.” The focus on esports is a model for how we should be approaching engagement with today’s students by giving students a compelling reason to connect with one another.  


The college union is often described as the heart and soul of the campus. By extension, students are the heart and soul of the college union. The process of responding to their needs is both iterative and perpetual. Just when we think we’ve figured out one generation, another arrives. The influence of technology on both Generation Z and the Millennial Generation has encouraged many to treat them as if they are the same—when there are many striking differences.  

The history of the college union is among its greatest strengths, and part of that history involves changing with the needs of a new generation. If it time for such a change again. For students to enjoy the benefits of their connections with us and with each other, we will need to find ways draw them into engagement in ways that reflect the needs and preferences of this generation.  


  • Adam Peck

    Adam Peck serves as interim vice president for university affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University. He has been a student affairs professional for more than 23 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Lewis University, a master’s degree in communication studies at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, and a doctor of philosophy from the University of Texas–Austin.

    View all posts
  • Shelby Hearn

    Shelby Hearn is a recent graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University. During her time at the institution, she served as a peer involvement advisor and as a student director for The BIG Event. She will begin her graduate degree in higher education and student affairs at Texas A&M University soon where she will also serve as a graduate assistant in the LAUNCH program.

    View all posts