Setting Up First-Year Students for Success—By Design
Cal Poly—integrating first-year students
The first year of college is a crucial one, and also a challenging one. It’s a big transition to go from living at home, with family, friends, and a landscape that are all familiar, to navigating a new environment, new responsibilities, and an entirely new set of people from very different backgrounds. Research shows that students who form strong social relationships quickly upon entering college have a much stronger chance of staying in school and graduating. So when Cal Poly San Luis Obispo decided it was time to build new housing for first-year students, the university wanted to make sure that the physical environment did everything possible to help residents connect with each other.
The new Cal Poly Student Housing South complex houses nearly 1,500 incoming first-year students. That’s a lot of people, and it would be easy to get lost among such a crowd. Research suggests that 50 is a magic number. That is, put 50 students together, and there’s a good chance that they will find some great friends who share their interests. Fifty students is a small enough number that everyone in the group can know each other’s name and run into each other on a regular basis, but large enough that they’re likely to find at least a few people who share their interests.
We divided the complex into seven three-to-five-story residence hall buildings, but we also created communities of 50 students within each structure. In some buildings, all 50 are on one floor, and in others, they are stacked on two floors. The living room is the social heart: in these two-story-high spaces, residents can hang out, watch TV, and even cook together in the adjacent kitchen. Some of the living rooms have stadium stairways connecting the two levels, wide enough to encourage spontaneous interaction as well as to double as places for sitting and chatting. Large windows bring in lots of daylight and provide visual connections to students in the courtyards outside. These loft-like living rooms can easily accommodate 25 people who all want to watch the Cal Poly Mustangs football team on TV together. It can also hold all 50 students for a more formal gathering. Balconies at the second level allow people to interact with the space without having to be at the center of the action—it’s easy to regulate how connected you are to the group.
Interaction isn’t all about leisure time, of course. To give students a place to work on projects together or hit the books without having to sit alone, we located a smaller space for studying away from the living room. These study spaces are comfortably scaled for about a dozen students. Whiteboards allow small groups to gather for brainstorming sessions together—because these days, college learning is increasingly emphasizing collaboration. While the living rooms look out onto the courtyards, the study spaces orient views toward the mountains in the distance, or to the street, to minimize distractions.
So often, in student housing, the circulation for students to reach their dorm rooms is functional at best. We designed the circulation routes here to be a pleasure to walk through and hang out, with plenty of daylight and a visual graphics program that gives each building a unique identity: in each building, the graphics tell the stories of the landscape of one of seven Northern Chumash villages along the Central Coast.The living rooms all open off of the central circulation staircase, which turns the stair into a hub of activity. This way, students from each 50-person community have the chance to connect to members of the three to five other communities in that building. So they’re not only part of a group of 50, but also a larger family of 200 to 300 students, and then of course the 1,475-student community of the whole complex.
We designed the spaces outside the building to promote social connection, too, with a large main lawn equipped with an amphitheater and a smaller courtyard that has volleyball and basketball courts. We also made sure there were plenty of landscaped areas, gardens, contemplative spaces, and bike paths.
The friends you make in your first year of college often become your friends all four years—sometimes even for life. The design of student residences can go a long way toward helping form those bonds. So even if you’re into rock-climbing and your roommate is a metal head who’s read everything Derrida ever wrote, you have a good chance of finding the cohort who will carry you through college and beyond. After all, many scientific studies have demonstrated that strong connections lead to academic success, which in turn bond you to the place and institution.