Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Student Centers: Building Community with New Dining Experiences

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Student Centers: Building Community with New Dining Experiences

Article excerpt


"Engage in the social aspect of college" is advice often shared with college and university students, encouraging them to embrace this new chapter in their lives and take advantage of all forms of learning opportunities. The university experience exposes young adults, most of whom are living independently for the first time, to a variety of new social situations and opportunities to interact with those of different backgrounds, expanding their exposure to the world. Consequently, fostering these experiences has become a top priority for institutions of higher education, which are envisioning new, creative strategies that encourage face-to-face interaction and informal learning.

There is a related opportunity for institutions to experiment with and interpret strategies that foster communication, activity, and encounters with others, including mealtime socialization. This dovetails with institutional goals to keep pace with students' changing expectations for food service and contemporary methods of social interaction, which in turn have an effect on the organization and design of student centers.

Considering the universal nature of mealtime socialization, it makes sense that dining facilities have long played an abiding role in universities as a place of communion. Though these collegial spaces and their approaches to dining have evolved, they continue to serve as a destination for socialization.

In the earlier years of higher education, dining was often a "sit-down" affair (Torisky 2007, p. 25) where meals were "served family style" (Eastern Illinois University, n.d., [paragraph] 4), and skipping meals "risked missing important social news" (Torisky 2007, p. 28) (figure 1). More recently, given the rise of texting and social media as secondary forms of connection and social newsgathering, questions have arisen about the evolution of dining. However, eating with others provides a sense of support and belonging, which is particularly crucial at a time when young adults are learning to live independently while forming relationships that have the potential to create everlasting impressions.


As higher education expanded in the 20th century, many colleges and universities came to recognize the need for a designated meeting place for their campus and community that functioned outside regular dining hours. The "student union," a concept introduced at the University of Pennsylvania in 1894 (figure 2), became popular throughout the United States as a designated space to hold student activities outside the classroom setting (Thomas and Brownlee 2000). Since the introduction of the student union, more and more institutions have integrated this space on campus to the point where it is rare to come across a university without one today. These centers function as specific destinations for social and organizational activities and academic support, supplementing dining facilities with more dynamic social spaces.

The design and operation of these complex multipurpose buildings is often developed to reflect the projected mission and "pulse" of the campus. However, another universal goal is the cultivation of a sense of community and belonging within the student body. Understanding the relationships between food, community, and social exchange can help create dynamic spaces of informal learning and student interaction within these buildings. Because student unions were established as destinations for congregation and organized activity to supplement the role of dining spaces as places of assembly and gathering, integrating dining into them is one approach to developing dynamic and impactful spaces, creating a seamless fusion of typologies and a synergistic effect on student interaction.


The thoughtful design of these dynamic spaces has the power to encourage interactions that can be leveraged to fulfill an institution's mission and goals. …

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