Planning and Design

Design Considerations for Supporting Student Resiliency

During the coronavirus pandemic, technology has strengthened the shift to fully on-line classes and teach from home for higher education. Even with this quick pivot by colleges and universities across the country, social distancing measures could have unintentional consequences for students. Quarantining and social distancing have forced rapid adjustments to the lack of physical presence on campuses. Planning for the effects of adversities that disrupt our established routines and environments is a challenge for anyone. How can higher education institutions incorporate student success in their resilience planning process as they consider future impacts on campuses? And how can design professionals use their knowledge and skills to support this effort?

A Shared Perspective of Resilience

Resilience comes in many forms, but we commonly understand it as the ability to recover quickly from difficulty and bounce back. Planning for resilience includes finding vulnerabilities to the built environment and designing solutions for stability. We typically turn to physical resilience in buildings to mitigate risk; however, social resilience contributes to a quicker recovery and encourages student success. Institutions can support student resilience for their long-term success.

Understanding your Community

The pandemic has overwhelmed health systems and disrupted the lives of entire communities, including a significant impact on college students. According to Lauren Herman, a career counselor at the University of Houston, the difference with COVID-19 is that “this is a marathon, not a sprint and it can be very exhausting when we don’t see the finish line; so we have to think about student success more holistically. The situation has inspired creative problem solving to support students and keep them engaged.” Student vulnerabilities may not be obvious, so examining demographics is crucial to uncover the challenges some face.

Enabling a resilient student body includes designing spaces that support social cohesion and the ability to recover quickly. Design strategies should consider social, economic, and environmental perspectives. Business continuity, and development opportunity address economic resilience, while equity, inclusivity, and community cohesion cover social resilience. Environmental resilience aims to balance natural and built environments. Although environmental and social impacts are more difficult to measure than economic impacts, the spaces we design impact how people interact with the environment and each other.

Design influences our perception of personal and common spacerom the furniture we use to the common spaces we share. Design also encourages collaboration, teamwork, and unity by planning spaces that prompt social interactions. The current global emergency will drive greater spatial flexibility which can be accomplished with moveable partitions that can grow space for groups requiring social distancing. This flexibility is important to adapt quickly while maintaining the ability to encourage social interactions.

During planning, conversations revolve around the number of students and classrooms; however, we need to think about other elements upfront in the planning stage. The swift changes demanded by COVID-19 highlights the importance of agility. The flexibility required for rapid changes should be designed in physical spaces, technology infrastructure, and social support programs.

Addressing the Vulnerabilities

Organizations can also create a response appropriate to campus and student susceptibilities to build resiliency. According to the American College Health Association, stress, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and depression had the most significant impact on students’ academic outcomes. To reduce student anxiety, many colleges and universities have addressed food insecurity by creating food pantries and food scholarships. The College and University Food Bank Alliance, which focuses on “alleviating food insecurity, and poverty among college and university students in the United States,” has over 700 members indicating a considerable need. The pandemic has intensified food insecurity, making the need for campus pantries more widespread. Architects and planners can intentionally plan for food pantries in student center buildings and on campuses near student housing to further support this need.

I was part of the Academic Achievers Program at the University of Houston. Its mission is to recruit underrepresented students who are the first in their families to attend college and whose circumstances put them at risk for dropping out of school. This program addresses vulnerabilities by providing students with economic assistance and by forming a social support network. The program helped me by providing skills workshops, leadership training, monthly meetings, and volunteering activities to attend. Based on my own experience, I know the social cohesion created by programs like these help students build resiliency. The program provides additional tutoring support and a program counselor.

According to Felicita Aguilar, the program’s counselor, student anxiety has increased during the pandemic. “There is a need to connect students with additional resources and to sustain communication by continuing monthly meetings and tutoring virtually. The transition was challenging, but we are focused on finishing the semester strong and looking forward to summer classes,” said Aguilar. Space for these types of support programs contribute to academic success and must be integrated into the design of traditional academic spaces to further support student resiliency.

What have we learned from the pandemic?

The pandemic exposed some aspects of the built environment that may need rethinking. The planning process offers an opportunity for institutions to integrate support programs and their required spaces for student resilience. As opposed to reacting to health issues, we should design the built environment to promote wellness and avoid health problems.

The threat of a highly contagious virus amplified our awareness of what we touch and in which order. Automatic doors, touchless elevator buttons, and other motion-activated elements will dominate design decisions to reduce the potential for cross-contamination from building elements. Reception areas, lobbies, and other administration spaces will adapt to semi-virtual experiences instantly with more technology infrastructure. This agility in spaces can help ease the transition back from the disruptions of social distancing.

Many aspects of the built environment, such as those that encourage physical activity and outdoor spaces, positively influence physical and mental health. Promoting the use of stairs by design, for example, encourages physical activity and allows for the physical distancing not possible in elevators. As the design and construction industries embrace strategies that foster occupant health and well-being, the benefits of these strategies, such as an improved immune system, can contribute to a broader resilient population.

What will the new normal look like in a society emerging from a global pandemic? Physical distancing measures need not be an obstacle to support students to overcome difficult situations. In many ways, the pandemic has reinforced our connection with each other and provided organizations opportunities to be closer with their constituents. We can become a stronger society from the lessons of this pandemic, one in which we rethink the design of physical spaces and the importance of the social interactions occurring within those spaces. The sudden disruption of COVID-19 has directed design professionals to harness the power of design to stimulate social resilience.

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