Benjamin Williams

Benjamin Williams

2019-2020 SCUP Fellow and Assistant Director of New Student Programs
Georgia State University 
SCUP Coaches: Howard S. Wertheimer, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Piedmont Park Conservancy; Lori S. White, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Washington University in St. Louis

Update: 1/28: Benjamin Williams, Assistant Director of New Student Programs at Georgia State University, has closed his SCUP Fellowship project due to an illness in his family. Ben and his family are in our thoughts during this difficult time.

SCUP Fellows Project Title:
Impact Versus Intent An examination of the Influence of Design on Marginalized Students’ Experience of Physical Space

NOTE: The project description below is taken from the SCUP Fellow’s original application proposal.

Project Description:
The project will contribute to the discourse on the difference between intent in design and impact in practice of campus projects on the student experience. The design process is a complicated and multifaceted process for all engaged in campus planning. As an administrator participating in planning for a new campus center, I am aware of the multiple perspectives, financial limitations, and restrictions that exist in planning for a space designed to meet multiple needs of a campus community. Additionally, it is well documented that spaces on campus contribute to students’ growth, supports community development, and have an influence on the ability of students to succeed at the collegiate level (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie & Gonyea, 2008; Tinto & Goodsell-Love, 1993). My normal responsibilities also give me the opportunity to have conversations with students and understand the ways that new spaces and their designed impact their experiences.
The Transgender student who has to walk half a mile to find a bathroom they are comfortable using, a student of color who is surrounded by white students all day who desperately wants space where she can be in community with other students of color on campus, and the closeted gay man who only attends Pride Alliance meetings when held in a room with no windows so he doesn’t get outed; all are examples of conversations I had in the fall semester. My experiences with planning for building projects, opening new buildings, and working in student-focused roles have made it apparent that opportunities exist to engage marginalized students in planning projects to support the design of spaces that meet the needs of the campus at large and simultaneously acknowledge the unique needs of marginalized students on predominantly white campuses. This study will provide a critical resource and understanding for campus planners and administrators on how to engage students and consider the impacts of design decisions on marginalized student experiences. Completion of this project contributes to the current discourse on planning and provides guidelines for how to engage students in conversations.

By selecting 4 research sites with new student-centered buildings, I will have a population that has had time to live in the building and to see how the project goals of the design teams compare to the ways that historically underrepresented student populations utilize spaces. Through conducting interviews with design teams and students at research sites, the data will provide a roadmap to understand areas where intentions and impact differ. The interviews with design team members focus on decision making with spaces, intended outcomes for spaces, and any student interactions that occurred. The interviews with students are designed to understand how spaces are being used and how students feel the intent of the design team to student actual usage of the space. The core of the difference between the two areas studied create a holistic view of how the decisions made in design meetings impact the day to day experiences of students who live, eat, and engage in aspects of collegiate life within student-centered facilities.

Project Goal and Applicability:
The goal of this project is to deepen the understanding of how marginalized students experience facilities that are designed for student use. Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, wrote extensively on the “third place,” which is a “generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work” (16) The study examines marginalized students’ perceptions of newly constructed student-centered spaces, which includes student centers, recreation centers, libraries, and housing facilities centering on how spaces do or do not support the establishment of community spaces. As a result of this first of its kind study, campus planners will have an additional perspective to consider when designing and planning for campus projects.

The results of this study and project will be applicable to a variety of planning projects from designing shared spaces in campus centers to allocating square footage in projects. The selection of sites at various types of institutions is an intentional research decision to identify themes that could be applied to a broad variety of projects. Potential sites and facilities include the Armstrong Student Center at Miami University, UMass Boston’s first residence hall, the Recreation Center at the University of Houston Clear Lake, and the Campus center at the University of Albany. These instructions represent various types of institutions with diverse student populations.

Project Methodology & Rationale:
For the purpose of this project, I will focus on interviews with two populations on campuses that have opened student-focused facilities within the past five years, but no less than one year. The first population are the planners, architects, and administrators responsible for the design, construction, and operation of the facilities. The second group are student users of the spaces. A survey will be administered to students and then using demographic data will compare experiences of student subgroups (race, sexuality, gender).

Project Deliverables:
In addition to the required deliverables, I will create a resource guide to engaging marginalized student populations in discussions around spaces being designed to support professionals in assessing the needs and exploring impacts of design decisions with students on campus. The guide will include suggestions on who to engage in the process, a question list to be adapted based on each respective campus, and a list of potential stakeholders on campus to engage as part of design processes. This product will provide a resource to planners and serve as an opportunity for administrators to demonstrate their commitment to engage users in the design process.

What do you hope to learn from SCUP?
I hope to gain insight into the world of planning on campuses. As an administrator who is passionate about space and community, I feel that SCUP and this Fellowship will provide a critical resource and provide a professional development experience I would be unable to get elsewhere. I aspire to be a senior leader on campus and the rich understanding SCUP will provide will allow me to deepen and strengthen my understanding of the planning process.