Visioning process for spaces on campus continues

Grapevine performs a Disney medleyPhoto by Abigail Starr '13
Grapevine performs a Disney medley
Photo by Abigail Starr '13

The strategic visioning process for spaces on campus is beginning to yield concrete ideas for key areas of improvement that the college can focus on. From the many workshops, committees, and consultations undertaken throughout the visioning process, the college is working to understand what defines the student experience, how campus spaces impact this, and how spaces should be changed to improve the student experience in the future.
The visioning process, which began last spring, has drawn on student, staff, and alumni feedback to form an idea of how the current Swarthmore experience compares to what it should be in the future. According to President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, the college will use a feedback-based framework to evaluate and address students’ key issues.
“I think the overarching issue of visioning is that we recognize that we have many facilities issues in student life, and we have some programmatic issues. What the institution has never done before, at least in recent history, is taken a step back to say, what do we want the student experience to be here, and how do we define that?” said Brown.
This process is being helped along by Brightspot Strategy, a consultancy firm based in New York, which has gathered student feedback and presented suggestions to the college. The college’s Space Matters committee, which aims to maximize the student experience through facilities, worked with the consultants to help them understand the student experience at the college. This dialogue included students on the committee giving the consultants guided tours. On Oct. 17th, the consultants held a session open to students faculty, and staff about the use of space on campus.
“[The panel] took a deep dive into the emerging themes that are coming out of this process, and we are really starting to test those that had some resonance with the audience,” said Brown.
Based on student, faculty, and alumni feedback, the college has established that building a “community of communities” is an important guiding principle. According to Brown, this goal requires working to create a place where specific student groups can be free and comfortable to engage with and support other student groups and the student body as a whole.
“One of the themes we’ve heard a lot from students in particular is that they often feel like they’ve got a small group, but they don’t know how to bridge from the group that they are in to other groups of students,” said Brown.
According to Brittni Teresi ’19, the issue of environmental sustainability can unify students across campus and is an important part of student life.
“An important part of the student experience that I think often gets overlooked is the school’s commitment to environmental sustainability. It shows care for the community, and that we, as students, can take small lifestyle changes to achieve a common goal,” said Teresi.
Especially central to creating a community of communities is the issue of balance in student life. Throughout the visioning process, the college has received feedback that raises questions about the ability of students to balance their commitments. Students generally express concern about their ability to participate in events due to their academic workload. One way this manifests is students’ inability to get off campus. According to Brown, it is a major problem if the workload is such that students feel unable to engage in extracurriculars.
“Students want to spend time in Chester or Philly doing meaningful work that fulfills the social justice mission of who we are, and at the same time, they feel like they can’t afford to take the time away from their work to do so,” said Brown. “If the perception of the workload is such that you aren’t able to explore, then we aren’t able to fulfill our mission.”
Xena Wang ’19 discussed the difficulty of leading a balanced life with the academic workload. Although the workload can be managed, she noted how it often doesn’t leave time for other aspects of life, such as socializing.
“Sometimes, there’s not a lot of breathing room, and you can’t even make time for other people when there’s no time for yourself. And, of course, if you want to have both things, you have to sacrifice your workload, which to some people isn’t possible,” said Wang.
One problem  throughout the visioning process was that panels and visioning events suffered from low student turnout, which may be indicative of a larger issue. Teresi expressed a desire for increased student participation at events.
“I really appreciate what the administration is doing with the visioning process because I feel like they really are trying to understand the student experience. I just wish they had a way of hearing from more students, even if everyone’s busy, and that they had a little more time for the process,” said Teresi.
According to Brown, the student perception of an excessive workload is evident in low participation in campus wide events.
“I think the challenge is … our students are really busy. When we say that we would like them to spend an hour and a half with us, even if we provide you food, that doesn’t always work as well as we would want, but it is critically important to hear the voices of students,” said Brown.
In response to this feedback, the visioning process has been centered around creating more balance in student life by working towards creating facilities that promote a multifaceted student experience and allow for increased engagement. They are primarily focusing their attention towards building a community of communities, in which students feel they can attend events and support their peers all across campus.
“So, how do you have enough balance in your life that you can actually grow and study and do what you are trying to do. What kind of spaces enhance that?” said Brown.
Assistant Director of Student Life Andrew Barclay discussed addressing systems that can help to create more balanced, participatory student life beyond adding new buildings. Although he applauds the OSE for all of their work done to host student events, he thinks that new modes of communication could increase student involvement.
“Students on campus have really multilayered existences.  [We are] trying to assess how the various ways that students can get the word out and get connected are going to drive up the participation. Students have extremely limited time,” said Barclay.
One of the key areas responsible for creating more balanced student life on campus is the dining experience. This year, the college has implemented the OneCard system, which has increased the diversity of food options. Despite this innovation, concerns remain with the situation of dining on campus, especially due to overcrowding of facilities. Teresi pinpointed a main campus problem: the overcrowding of buildings on campus. More dining spaces would allow for diversity of food options and increased social life.
“For primary changes in facilities on campus, I would love to see more social spaces and more eating places since the school is getting way too overcrowded,” said Teresi.
According to Brown, some of the main concerns throughout the visioning process have been that there aren’t enough dining options and that Sharples dining hall is too congested. The visioning process will be looking into how spaces can be improved to augment the student dining experience.
“We have heard from students that, on the one hand, they love going to Sharples on a regular basis because they run into people from all over campus, which is the building community theme, but on the other hand, they just want to sit down with one or two other students and have a private conversation. One of the things we need to think differently about is how to make sure it is not just about food choices but about seating choices and hours and all sorts of stuff,” said Brown.
Another primary area of concern is study spaces on campus. Given the age of many of the libraries, the visioning team has been working to evaluate how well-suited these spaces are for the way in which students study now. Arising throughout the visioning process was the theme of students mixing their socializing and studying practices.
“Our libraries are a good example of spaces that were designed at a specific point and time, but are not how students like to work now. At Swarthmore, students like to socialize and study in the same spaces at the same time. There is less of a distinction between study life and social life, so how do we have spaces on campus that support that?” said Brown.
The next step in the visioning process is to hold a meeting with the consultants and faculty, similar to the visioning processes done with students earlier this semester. The goal will be to get faculty input on the emerging themes of the visioning process.

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