Looking Into Your Student Union

By: Senior Consultant, Heather Larabee

As a senior consultant for Spelman Johnson, I have the privilege of traveling all over the country to visit campuses and meet fascinating people. I love seeing the different campuses; the architecture, landscaping, and design. Perhaps one of my favorite buildings, and one that I always try to see, is the student union. This is due in part to my history in student affairs and also, as a student, the union was one of the places I felt most connected. Student unions on any campus should be a buzz of activity filled with members of the campus community and welcoming gathering spaces to facilitate meaningful dialogue among the students, faculty, and staff. The other attractions and services that complete a union vary from campus to campus, but at the core of the union’s purpose is always the same – to serve the students.

As a means to best serve the students, several trends, best practices, and/or discussion topics have emerged regarding student union work. These are not new to student affairs work or unique to student unions, but they are continuing to influence work and decision making. Recently, I have seen a few topics more frequently surface through my discussions with student union colleagues: assessment, relevancy, and the notion of the union being the “third place.”


Yes, we all know about assessment. This is hardly a buzzword or new concept, in fact, most Student Affairs divisions have their own departments or committees to work with the assessment needs of the division. We all agree that the benefits of effective assessment are plentiful, influencing every aspect of our work. In the student union environment, well-constructed research tools can assist in the assessment of students’ needs, habits, wants, and wishes. This information can inform all decisions across every area of the union. However, many student unions are only doing half the work. The data is being collected through multiple surveys, evaluations, people counters, etc., but that data is not efficiently or effectively analyzed and, in some cases, nothing is ever done with that data. This unused data represents numerous opportunities lost.


Campuses and the communities a union serves are changing, yet the mission of a student union has remained constant over the years. New buildings, even academic ones, are beginning to resemble student unions with dining options, gathering spaces, event spaces, and retail outlets. With these multi-purpose buildings becoming more common, what drives a student to the union? How does the union stay competitive and remain relevant to not just students but all campus constituents?

Additionally, as campuses grow, the student union may no longer be in the center of campus. Couple this change with these newer buildings with similar amenities and the union now finds itself in competition for students, faculty, staff, and visitors. Student union staff are exploring ways to enhance and clarify the union’s identity and ensure its continued importance on campus.

Third Place

Undoubtedly, fostering community is one of the most important functions of a student union. In community building, the notion of third place, the social surroundings outside of home and work, fits perfectly with both the mission and purpose of a student union. Intentional efforts must be made to allow the campus community to create these third spaces. This can be done through activities, programs, and events, well designed spaces, and services provided to the community, but it must be done in consultation with community. It is essential to ensure all voices within the campus community are included in order to facilitate the creation of third spaces for everyone.

Heather Larabee

Search Associate - Spelman Johnson

Heather Larabee earned her BS in marketing from the University of West Florida, her MEd from the University of Florida and her doctor of education in educational leadership from the University of Southern California. Heather has most recently served as assistant dean of students and director of campus activities in the division of student affairs at the University of Southern California. Prior to this, she served as the assistant director for cultural arts and activities. Heather came to the University of Southern California from Francis Marion University where she served as the director of student life in the division of student affairs. She also held the position of program coordinator in the division of student affairs at the University of Tennessee. Heather has published several articles and has been a presenter at the National Association for Campus Activities, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the Association of College Unions International national conferences.