Learning from Student Engagement

Research played a key role in developing the vision for a new health, wellness and recreation center that won the support of California State University, Dominguez Hills students.

The first step in turning the design for a new health, wellness and recreation center for California State University, Dominguez Hills into reality was a referendum asking students to approve an increase in student fees to pay for the project.

LPAred, the firm’s in-house research team, was engaged to work with the design team, students and educators from the earliest stages of the process. Their goal was to help develop strategies to gather and share information, cultivating data that would provide students authorship and ensure that the project would support their needs and interests.

A compressed timeline ramped up the challenges. The team would have only four months to develop the design and gain the support of the student body, a process that would typically take a year to 18 months. The design process and outreach were conducted concurrently, with the research team working with campus leaders and designers to develop data for the various services the new facility could provide on campus.

“We needed to engage with as many students as possible to develop programs responsive to their needs,” says LPA Design Director for Programming Winston Bao. “It was important to define a clear vision for the center and the qualities of success that will shape the design.”

Student Engagement 01
Qualities of success were defined through stakeholder engagement and research.

Homework was given to the committee of stakeholders to explore their priorities and expectations. Researchers wanted to learn more about past campus communication efforts, as well as develop questions they felt would produce the best actionable information from the students. What would be the most relevant questions? How could we learn more about the students’ needs and concerns?

A student engagement team was formed, representing a broad spectrum of the campus community. The group provided real-time data during the process, operating as an informal focus group to help develop better questions and interpret feedback.

“It really helped to get the right mix of people at the table early on and leverage communication channels that were already successful on campus,” LPA Research Manager Kimari Phillips says. “We needed to engage a representative ‘student voice’ and be strategic with the campaign messaging.”

A regular cadence of workshops was established for the different groups, with clear agendas and targets for each session. Bouncing ideas off students — a process known as member checking — helped researchers assess the level of student interest in different resources.

Student Engagement 02
Inclusive stakeholder engagement and data collection were part of a participatory design process, starting with the question: “How will we define success?”

To get a better sense of student priorities and interests, the team developed a campus-wide online survey focusing on student wellness. The questions helped both administrators and designers learn more about how students spend time on campus, how they might use a new facility like this and how the project might improve their daily lives. Designers chose the survey topics and questions carefully to ensure an unbiased inquiry, and tested the questions with the student engagement team before formally beginning the survey.

“We needed to be as neutral as possible to elicit an honest response from the students,” Phillips says.

The results dramatically illustrated the need for the new center. Seventy-six percent of respondents said they spent more than three hours a day on campus between classes; 64% said emotional wellness was a top challenge; 40% said they would “definitely” cancel a gym membership if there was an on-campus alternative.

Students overwhelmingly expressed their need for a place on campus that helped with the mental health impacts of student life; for example, 69% expressed an interest in stress-management programs. More respondents expressed the need for a place to relax (71%) than exercise (60%). Sixty-five percent said they felt tired or sleepy most days.

Student Engagement 03
Focus groups and design charrettes with stakeholders resulted in multiple scenarios that explored the scope, program and budget.

The responses provided vivid evidence of the need for an on-campus resource like the proposed health, wellness and recreation center.

“The data gave the student engagement team and the design team the ability to refine the program, which was gravitating toward wellness, healing, reconnecting and, as the students called it, spaces to ‘get centered,’” says LPA Design Director Ozzie Tapia. “These are things that they don’t currently have enough of on campus.”

The results were correlated with the design team’s research, which focused on the historic and social context of the university and the region’s underserved communities. The campus lacks the resources of other CSU campuses, and students often felt left out; Dominguez Hills is one of the last universities in the system without a modern wellness and recreation facility.

“All the amenities offered throughout this project respond to direct requests from students for social equity, inclusiveness and the ability to build a stronger campus community,” Tapia says.

The research provided an evidence-based path to shape an outreach campaign that would resonate with students. LPA’s Integrated Communications team helped to develop messaging, graphics and consistent storytelling for the referendum campaign. The focus was on building excitement and support for the new center. Wellness was a top priority, the data showed, and students understood the importance of creating a legacy resource to benefit future generations.

In April 2022, student voters approved the project. It can now move forward to develop health, fitness and wellness environments to support student health and well-being based on the goals established from the research.