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Your alarm buzzes, alerting you that it’s time for that early morning class. You sit up in bed and stare at the four, bland beige cinderblock walls surrounding you and your roommates. Your roommate switches on the fluorescent light and the room is flooded with a yellowish, flickering glow. Instantly you feel the dread of another school day wash over you. You shuffle down the dark hallway, without seeing a single soul, and make your way to class. Stopping by the café next to your res hall, you grab one of their few menu options – a greasy looking breakfast sandwich, and briefly soak in the sunlight before slinking into the windowless classroom. The grey walls only enhance your gloomy mood, and the dim fluorescent lighting gives you a ‘blah’ feeling. It’s going to be another long Monday…

 

Many of us may have had similar experiences as students and can almost feel our mental health declining by reading about this student’s experience. The reality is that many students today are going through struggles with mental health. With nearly 40% of college students experiencing depression, according to a 2020 study, and 34% reporting anxiety, colleges and universities are looking for ways to take even better care of their students (Education Now: Mental Health and Wellness at College Today, Harvard Graduate School of Education). This starts from the very spaces that students are living and learning in, where they spend the majority of their time. A few very important elements to consider when designing for student health and wellbeing are creating safe, private spaces for students, strategic community areas, flexible spaces, connections to the outdoors, and healthy and convenient food and fitness options.

Flexible Spaces

Different types of spaces allow for students to function how they need, when they need. For example, a private living area or dorm room allows for time alone to think, study, and relax without interruption. This could also be a little nook or booth that gives students privacy, but still lets them be near community areas so they aren’t completely alone. Intentional community spaces are also very important. In the story example, the student could walk all the way to their classroom without interacting with a single person. By creating small lounge areas in hallways or connecting points between dorm spaces, students have the option to interact more and be outside of their rooms. They can meet up with other students and do activities that span more than just class and homework, which is important for their mental health.

Notre Dame Morris Inn Flexible Student Study Space Saint Mary's Health Sciences Morris Inn Lounge Student Mental Health
Notre Dame Morris Inn Flexible Student Study Space Saint Mary's Health Sciences Morris Inn Lounge Student Mental Health
Saint Mary's Health Sciences Connection to Outdoors Huntington HUB Southern Wesleyan University – Joiner-Hilson Complex

Connectivity to Outdoors

According to a study by Heschong Mahone Group , exposure natural light, has been shown to enhance learning rates as much as 26%. Having a general connection with nature and the outdoors can reduce stress and have positive effects on mood and emotion. Not only do students need that outdoor connection in their dorm rooms, but in other buildings on campus as well. College students spend an average of 15-20 hours a week in the classroom (North Central College), even more if they have multiple majors or are earning their master’s degree. Simply having windows and access to sunlight in a classroom setting can improve the mental health of students. If a classroom is centrally located in a building and is unable to have a window, plants and other natural elements can be brought into the design of the classroom to still bring in that connection to the outdoors.

Saint Mary's Health Sciences Connection to Outdoors Huntington HUB Southern Wesleyan University – Joiner-Hilson Complex

Food Options

Mental health is not just affected by surroundings, but also what you put in your body for nourishment. Having healthy and convenient food options around campus is a simple way to improve health and wellbeing. When conducting a campus master plan, dining locations should be carefully considered with this in mind. This may mean implementing more smaller food service options that are widespread across the campus so no matter where students are, they can have a healthy food option that’s convenient. If you’re looking for something to eat and there’s only one healthy dining place on campus, but it’s all the way across four different buildings and an athletic field, are you probably going to choose the burger and fries joint that’s right next to your dorm? Most likely. Implementing a variety of healthy food options in convenient locations is a significant way to help improve the overall wellbeing of students.

Morris Inn Coffee Shop Kitchen Education Project Huntington University HUB Dining Taylor University Campus Center Students Taylor University – LaRita Boren Campus Center
Morris Inn Coffee Shop Kitchen Education Project Huntington University HUB Dining Taylor University Campus Center Students Taylor University – LaRita Boren Campus Center
Lehman Family Training Center Weight and Cardio Andrews University - Andreasen Center for Wellness Andrews University - Andreasen Center for Wellness - Elipticals

Fitness Spaces

Large campus gyms are certainly necessary for athletic teams to workout in, and as a place where larger and more specific training equipment can be centrally located. However, many students may avoid the campus gym because they are intimidated by exercising in front of their peers, are overwhelmed when the entire football team is in there grinding out reps, or maybe they simply don’t want to walk all the way to the gym after a long day of classes and working at their parttime job. This is where flexible spaces come in! Often in dorms there may be a community hub area, possibly a kitchenette, and maybe even a game room of sorts. Adding a small fitness area would bring convenience to students who want to exercise but don’t want to go all the way to the campus gym and gives them a little more privacy when working out. This could be an area with a few treadmills and ellipticals, and maybe a stationary bike or two. It could even just be an open space with a small rack of weights and some yoga mats where students could stretch, do a little lifting, and get their blood moving. Having more convenient fitness options, even with simple little additions to residence halls, is a great way to encourage students’ physical wellbeing, which in turn improves their mental health.

Lehman Family Training Center Weight and Cardio Andrews University - Andreasen Center for Wellness Andrews University - Andreasen Center for Wellness - Elipticals

After talking about some of the ways to improve campus spaces in the interest of mental health, let’s see what the same student’s experience is like at a college that has implemented some of these things.

Your alarm clock beeps, and you sit up as the sunlight filters through your window, spilling across the bed. You step out of your room and chat with your roommates as they too are getting ready for class. As you walk down the hallway, you wave to a few friends who are sitting in the little hallway nooks, eating breakfast or sipping coffee before their morning class. You head over to a corner of the res hall’s community hub, where there are a few treadmills and other exercise machines looking out over the beautifully landscaped campus. A few other students are exercising, likely having afternoon classes today. Walking outside, you take in the fresh air as you make your way to the little breakfast place next door. Inside, you grab a cup of coffee and a freshly made breakfast burrito with veggies and sausage. You stop to talk with other students who are in line for their breakfast before heading out to class. Once inside, you pick a seat next to a large window and chat with a few friends. Sunlight fills the classroom, lighting the pale blue walls and giving it a cozy feel. Another day of learning and college life!

Imagine yourself as the first student, then compare it to this student who has many more options as far as spaces for interaction, privacy, healthy food options, fitness, and connectivity to the outdoors. Just reading about the two experiences makes us want to help out that poor first student. Space has such a strong effect on mental health, and there are so many ways that we can improve students’ lives in all aspects of campus life.

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