Welcome to the Student Union!
The student union at UNC-Chapel Hill is a place on campus bustling student activity ranging from the eternal lines at Alpine Bagel, intensive ping-pong, studying with friends, or relaxing in the meditation room. The union has an air of modernity to it characterized by the towering flat screen televisions, multicolored and comfortable furniture, and whimsical art to liven up the rooms. It is not uncommon to observe students sitting alone or among other students typing on their laptops, showing each other interesting stuff on each other’s phone, and bobbing their head to music playing through their headphones. On the main floor you are likely to observe people socializing in the main lobby and will immediately hear the humdrum of students talking among one another. The third floor is an area dedicated to quiet study and you can even catch students napping! The ground floor offers ping-pong, treadmills, a meditation room, and other games; this floor feels like an area where students can get away from studies. Also, this particular floor offers amenities such as a Wendy’s, a lost and found desk, and printing stations which is convenient for students. Observing such a place where a building serves many needs for a diverse community caused me to wonder how people come together and act as a community when they are all doing different activities. To satiate my curiousness, I observed how others used the student union space. As I began to observe more and more, I realized that the student union attracts students by creating and fostering community through factors such as comfort, convenience, and inclusiveness.
To collect data to further study student union culture, I collected 4 observations of 30 minutes each. I blended in easily through my casual attire and laptop and backpack which were key indicators that I was just another student at UNC. This helped me take notes in a clandestine manner and avoid disrupting my environment. Furthermore, I began to immerse myself into the student union culture by participating in what other students were doing which usually involved studying. I studied individually on ever floor and I invited my friends to study with me and kept mental tabs on our interaction together.
After gathering notes on the surroundings and trying to understand what it meant to be a student at the union, I began to interview my peers at the union.  I selected people at random on ever floor of the union. My interviewees were generally completing various tasks and seemed like they had different reasons to be at the union. I used these methods because I believe the combination of participant observation, observational study, and informal interviews would allow me to gather a wholesome view of the student union.
Comfort is a must
Community is created in the union by supplying a comfortable environment conducive to all types of students. Each floor of the union has different settings that varying students may feel more comfortable in. One interviewee studying on the main floor stated, “listening to others talking and knowing that people are doing their work is relaxing to me” (personal communication, November 2 2016). I thought this was interesting because I have never enjoyed studying in louder environments such as the main floor because I prefer quieter environments. Because I liked quieter environments, I found that the third floor was conducive to students like myself who prefer more space from others and a relaxed and almost silent environment. Each floor has its own unique design to foster different settings to cater to what different students find comfortable. Robson argues that when considering the design of a public setting, one must factor in the ambient elements and placement of furniture in order to attract people to the area (1999).
Another thing I found interesting was how students were dressed and how people felt comfortable with napping in front of others without judgment. Some students were dressed in casual clothes or gym clothes while others were dressed in nice or formal clothes. It seemed as if people accepted one another and the fact that everyone has their own things to do. Students were also seen napping in the open without any judgment from peers. I concluded that if students were to feel comfortable with themselves and their environment, they would thus be more comfortable with their peers and their community.
I NEED IT NOW!
Convenience is an important factor when building a community and two important factors to convenience at the union are the location and the amenities provided. There are many amenities provided such as printing stations, meeting rooms for student organizations or faculty, and a game lounge for students. You can also frequently observe students walking in and out of the union to use the bathroom, grab fast-food, or fill up their water bottles. One describes the union as “a pit-stop where you can find yourself at multiples times a day” (personal communication, November 2, 2016).
The union’s central location also makes it an easy place to meet and organize communal gatherings. One interviewee claimed that doing group projects at the union is convenient as most students know where the union is and because collaboration is not discouraged at the union which makes the union a communal space for all. Vondracek contends that students are more attracted to places that offer more collaborative options (2007). Factors such as the convenience of many amenities attracts people to the union and the union’s central location makes it a great place students can get together for any type of communal gathering.
Why can’t we be friends?
The union is a unique place on campus that highlights inclusiveness through spaces like the art gallery and the promotion of different and diverse student groups on campus. There are also gender neutral bathrooms and organized communal events which aim to bring students together as a community. The art gallery’s pieces will usually feature UNC members and their various identities. As of now, the gallery is full of stories of people at UNC and their experience with being transgender. Brooks argues that the role of the student union has changed to be more focused on student engagement and representation and that spaces such as the union allow the student’s voices to be amplified (2014).
Furthermore, many students have many inclusive buttons on their backpacks or stickers on their laptops. One interviewee states that, “The union is a very inclusive space for everyone and one you can be with your friends at. It’s a community space where everyone can find something they need” (personal communication, November 2, 2016). The student union provides an open space for students to express themselves and their identities on the UNC campus. Because there are no implications of what a Tarheel is supposed to look like or do, students feel attracted to this and feel like they are part of a community for all at the union.
Photo: (Top) Images from the Carolina Indian Circle’s Annual Pow-Wow. (Bottom) Portraits of transgender people.
So let’s wrap this up…
The student union creates community through factors such as comfort, convenience, and inclusiveness. Such factors attracts a diverse population of students and promotes the quality of student life. It is important the understand how community is created in order to create similar spaces where students can feel like they belong and feel comfortable in, especially on a big campus with people of many different identities and backgrounds.
Brooks, R., Byford, K., & Sela, K. (2014, February 06). The Changing Role of Students’ Unions
Within Contemporary Higher Education. Journal of Education Policy, 30(2), 165-181.
Robson, S. “Turning the Tables.” The Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly
40.3 (1999): 56-3. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
Vondracek, Ruth. “Comfort and Convenience? Why Students Choose Alternatives to the
Library.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 7.3 (2007): 277-93. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.
 Interview Questions:
How do you define the student union?
What aspects of the student union do you like the most?
Do you feel comfortable at the student union? If so, why?
How do you study with the busy atmosphere?
How often do you go to the student union and for what purposes?