Creating an effective campus environment

A young man of my acquaintance was recently touring college campuses.  Like thousands of high school juniors he was looking for that perfect place to continue his preparation for adulthood.  He wouldn’t put it that way, of course.  For him it was “Can I see myself in this place?”  “Will I do well here?”  “What will life be like here?”  So what were his responses?  About one campus he said, “I’m not feelin’ it.  Too old and institutional.”  At another place he said, “This is my new #1.”  Why?  “The buildings were new and I felt comfortable.” For a long time college admissions officers have known that how a campus “looks and feels” are right at the top of the criteria that students use in selecting a college.  This may be discouraging to faculty and frustrating to a whole host of communications experts who design a message reflecting the collegiate mission and institutional brand.  But it is not surprising to those familiar with today’s teens. Let’s fast forward to college seniors.  This is commencement season.  Speech after speech provides graduates with important lessons about perseverance, passion, commitment and courage.  Newly minted alumni are asked to remember their alma mater and the role the school played in promoting their future success.  So what do the seniors say about their school?  Seniors talk about relationships – with faculty, with classmates, with staff.  They talk about experiences – in the classroom and the residence halls, in other countries and internships.  And they talk about their goals and hopes. The conundrum for administrators, maybe especially student affairs administrators, but really all administrators, is how to create a campus environment that is appealing and riveting to potential students that also functions as the setting for robust intellectual and character growth of the college student.  Buildings and spaces must be attractive, but not just attractive.  Buildings and spaces must be comfortable, but not just comfortable. The environment must reflect the creativity of an institution and inspire creativity in individuals. The built environment reveals the connections between the various components of the college yet must also embolden students to make connections to people and ideas.  The built environment should exhibit the convergence of patterns into a usable tableau while inspiring students to examine the elements of their lives that will converge into lives of character, substance and intellectual capacity. Can such a place be built?   Indeed, it already has been built on many campuses (both educational and otherwise) but it can rarely be done without long-term thought, planning, and a creative mix of institutional mission, outcome oriented decision making and an understanding of the impact the built environment can have at all levels of the student experience.  The effective campus environment is not created by serendipity although it serves as the setting for multiple serendipitous events which comprise the college experience.