How to Create a Welcoming Environment in Student Affairs

Accessible, positive, supportive, comfortable, fun, inviting. These are all words student affairs professionals love to use when describing their office, campus environment, or the people who work in it.

People and environments are constantly changing, impacting and affecting one another: it’s both the energy we bring as humans into a space and the energy we feel from our environment that also determines how we feel.

The word environment itself can represent many things. The environment can be both cultural and social factors, or like the air we breathe or the ground beneath us – really anything surrounding us at any given time.

Our most taken-for-granted tools we can use to connect with students is the space we work in and the attitude we bring to it. Whether you’re meeting with a student or colleague in a one-on-one, doing so in a generative environment can be the key to creating stronger relationships on campus.

We’ve compiled suggestions to help student affairs professionals create supportive spaces that amplify relationships with both student and professional success alike.

Use authenticity to help others feel comfortable.

Authenticity in the simplest form is how we can convey genuineness to ourselves and others. Exhibiting your authentic professional self in front of students helps break the ice and develop meaningful relationships which otherwise may not exist in a strictly professional environment.

Benjamin McNamee, Academic Advisor at UMass Boston, describes a memorable experience of how leading by example allows for a welcoming environment, 

“This piece of advice stems back to my days working orientation at Southern Connecticut State University. I believe, to truly make people feel comfortable, you need to model the behavior that you want in a very obvious manner. For orientation, to make the students feel comfortable to have fun you need to be the biggest fool in the room. For my advising conversations with students I need to be calm in order for them to be calm. Besides setting up your office in a way to break down barriers and make sure it is accessible to all, the biggest thing you can do to make the space you have control over more welcoming is to be present, be engaging, and although defining a word with the word is not good practice, just be welcoming.”

And sometimes it’s as simple as telling students what student affairs professionals do day-to-day before they arrive to campus.

Toi Thibodeaux, LGBT Program Coordinator at University of California Riverside, explains that describing SA pro roles is often helpful,

“Let them know you’re available as a resource. Especially for the students who are living on campus and away from home for the first time. I think it’s important to explain to them what it is you do and what you can do for them to make their college experience memorable, meaningful, and impactful.”

Listen to student stories and share your own.

Meetings are incredible opportunities to learn about students, professionals, and their stories. When we take the time to learn about others’ journeys we create networks of mentorship that build a foundation for student success. Toi elaborates,

“Whenever possible and whenever it permits, I think it’s important to nurture student leaders and provide one-on-one mentorship and give them the time and attention they need. Have coffee or lunch appointments with them so they know we value them and how important it is to support students in our role. However, I think the most important thing is to show students that we are genuinely concern about their well-being and progress in their matriculation as a student.”

It’s doesn’t stop at the student level either.

Monica Ratliff, Education Abroad Advisor and graduate student at Wright State University, mentions the importance of connecting the leadership of an institution with entry level student affairs professionals,

“Recognize who is on the front lines and in the ‘trenches’ with students on a day-to-day basis. Student affairs professionals need to have an opportunity to have their creative minds heard by the higher ups at their institution. Many amazing ideas created by young professionals go unnoticed due to a lack of institutional knowledge and who to connect with.”

Break down divisional or departmental silos and investigate relationships with other colleagues across campus (or next door) that could help you in your role.

Assess your workspace.

Feelings of positivity through strong relationships often make people safe and create a deeper sense of belonging. It’s important that people feel comfortable in an office space as well. People tend to open up more if they feel at ease in a space. A comfortable office also increases productivity and the quality of time spent at work.

Here are five ways to make students feel more comfortable:

1) Eliminate clutter

From time-to-time we find offices that look like the Tasmanian devil recently made their way through. Piles of paper, books, and binders spread out are not typically attractive to the student, professional, or parent coming in for an important meeting. As a first impression, it expresses a disorganized mind. Additionally, it may be hard for other people to focus or feel like the focus isn’t on them for the whole meeting.

Create files, recycle, or leverage new technology to help with paper processes.

2) Limit family photos

Try to keep family pictures to one frame or area in your office or at your desk. It’s nice to remind students that SA pro’s are indeed people outside of work. Not all students or professionals have strong or positive familial connections.

3) Be mindful of artwork

Some physical attributes of a campus are not always welcoming to marginalized groups if they’re underrepresented. A great example is often artwork that is part of the history of a college or university that is hung in common areas. Kuh (2010) explains, “portraits or artwork in public places often reflect the institutions history and preferences of the administrators. As a result, artifacts manifest mostly white, mostly male views.”

4) Incorporate more plants

Ahhh, we can already breathe better. Plants are great for offices without windows or without access to a source of fresh outdoor air. If you take care of them, plants bring positive energy because they bring life to a room through their color and by removing toxins from the air. If neglected, they bring an obvious negative sort of subconscious morbid vibe to a room. Here are some plants that are best for offices.

If you don’t have a green thumb, opt for a few fake plants that look real (or have a trusty co-worker help you out).

5) Consider furniture

Depending on what you’re trying to convey, it’s important to take a good look at furniture in your workspace. Cozy, comfortable furniture conveys a different tone from that of less comfy chairs with no padding. Evaluate if the space around furniture is accessible with people with varying physical ability levels.

In your individual office, look at the positioning of your desk and any other furniture. When you’re meeting with students does a desk come between you and a student? If you’re working together to solve a problem, listen to a concern, or get to know a student (which is 99% of the time) it’s best to meet with a student away from your desk. This communicates nonverbally that you’re mentally and physically away from other work and have their full attention.

“Our work comes full circle.”

No institution is perfect when it comes to assessing how the environment impacts students and professionals. It’s easy to criticize how offices are making use of their space or how their personalities contribute to the campus community. There are endless ways to create meaningful environments for students on campus and for your team. It’s every student affairs practitioner’s responsibility to be aware of the environment they can control and create and not to forget how these decisions help or hinder interactions with students in the present moment. Toi states it perfectly,

In the long run, if students have a successful and pleasurable student experience, it makes make them more like to give back to the university like contribute and be involved with an alumni association. We can continue to do our jobs successfully helping and assisting other students and connecting them with alumni who’ve had meaningful experiences. Our work comes full circle.”

What are some ways you create a welcoming environment?

How do students and professionals feel when they enter your workspace or office?

Share them with us @HelloPresence or comment below!

References:

Kuh, G. D. (2010). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ricci, M. (2007). Creature comforts in the workplace: how to create an office you love. www.monicaricci.typepad.com

Strange, C. & Banning, J. (2001). Educating by design: creating campus learning environments that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham is the Community Engagement Manager at Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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