How student unions are the next frontier for community colleges

Student unions are not that common for community colleges, but that is changing in the time of COVID. Creating a vibrant, but safe, environment for students is a challenge.

By Craig Hamilton and Carrie Parker November 18, 2020

As the world continues to adapt and adjust to the pandemic, so will the college campus experience. We see near term changes as educational institutions continue to grapple with how to return students to campus; we also expect long term changes as the nation recovers from one of the deepest economic downturns in modern history. And we’ve witnessed a growing awareness that systemic racial injustice is real, persistent and requires active intervention to move our country to a more just and inclusive society. Community colleges are in many ways the first line of higher education; they provide access to training, transferable skills and re-entry options to the portions of our population most directly impacted by the economic, health and equity challenges we’re facing. For this reason, how community colleges respond and how we support their efforts is central to our nation’s re-emergence. How can we create community on community college campuses, and what is the role of co-curricular spaces?

Student unions are key to creating a sense of community, and while they’re a staple at four-year universities, they’re less common for two-year ones. We’ve observed a pre-pandemic trend of community colleges increasing programs and facilities to support student retention and success, and believe this need will only increase as we move to a new post-COVID world. However, in addition to these programs, creating living-centered, student-focused areas that support the experience of college may help cater to the influx of the range of students likely to occur in the coming months/semesters. Student unions, as the traditional “downtown of campus,” offer an opportunity for designers and educational institutions alike to rethink how we develop spaces that support the whole student, not just their academic needs.

At Tidewater Community College’s urban Norfolk campus, the Student Center includes a variety of seating walls, steps, and outdoor dining tables within a lively, central plaza. The plaza supports multiple activities including small study groups, impromptu presentations, large gatherings, and displays of student projects and artwork. “The Center is a unifying element that connects the students’ social, cultural, and personal development with their educational pursuits in a way that was not feasible prior to its opening,” said Frank Dunn Executive Vice President, Tidewater Community College.

Ohlone College, Academic Core. Courtesy: CannonDesign[/caption]

While community colleges are historically more workforce-focused, student unions offer the opportunity to help students develop soft skills in addition to job training. Student unions are where institutions can engage marginalized voices and allow students to become contributing members of society in a way that is meaningful to their community. As our country grapples with its history of racial injustice, community colleges may be uniquely positioned in the higher education landscape to positively address issues of inclusion, access and equity; they already serve very diverse populations, but the pandemic offers challenges and opportunities to rethink how to support populations more adversely impacted. Student services and student unions may become more essential supporting tools to creating diverse, inclusive and equitable campuses as community colleges begin to explicitly focus on the individual needs of their diverse campuses.

It’s important to offer students wellness support, especially during/after these more trying times. Offering areas or resources for recreation, health and counseling, healthy dining or napping spaces can encourage students to stay on campus and feel more welcome/connected. Family support in the form of young childcare and family counseling can help improve community engagement, or at least help those commuter students feel more comfortable staying onsite.

Two notable institutions are teaming together to address many of these issues. The UnionWest at Creative Village shared by Valencia College and the University of Central Florida is built on the edge of the Parramore Community, a historically black residential area in Orlando. Its mission of providing access and equity can be felt in the exhibit displays in the Center and the Academic Commons, which are dedicated to notable community members. Programs engaging with the community and a nearby public elementary school are intended to reach back into the pipeline and bring new students to life-changing opportunities. UnionWest houses the new home of the Walt Disney World Center for Culinary Arts and Hospitality, providing skills and management training for the largest industry in Orlando by the largest employer. By offering housing, UnionWest encourages students to get involved in campus activities, interact with diverse people and have immediate access to downtown jobs. Within the building students have access to retail dining, a recreation center, health and counseling center and student support services. The campus aims to include access to other residential-support services for the whole community.

The world of education is rapidly evolving, and while it is presenting challenges to our ideas of traditional learning, it is also offering areas of opportunity to improve. Placing more emphasis on the student union via reconsidering the spaces included, the offerings given, and the availability of resources is one way community colleges can adapt and cater to a brand new demographic of students.

This article originally appeared on CannonDesign’s websiteCannonDesign is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Craig Hamilton, FAIA, LEED AP, Los Angeles, CannonDesign; Carrie Parker, AIA, LEED AP, Washington, D.C., CannonDesign