Colleen McKenna
Colleen McKenna
Roland Lemke
Roland Lemke
April 12, 2021

From Backdoor to Campus Beacon: How Modern Student Health Centers Redefine Wellbeing

Colleen McKenna
Colleen McKenna
Roland Lemke
Roland Lemke

Gen Z—the current generation attending college and university across the United States—is remarkably unique in their health and wellbeing focus. On one hand, they are more empowered and aware of their health and fitness 24/7 thanks to fitness trackers, apps, and social media influencers. At the same time, a significant portion of them struggle with mental and physical health challenges at higher rates than previous generations.

To best help this unique generation and those that will follow, colleges and universities are reimagining their student health centers. Gone are the days where health centers were places to avoid unless students absolutely had to go there due to illness.

Today, student health centers are infused with mental health spaces, demonstration kitchens, access to nature, multipurpose rooms for yoga and relaxation, social zones, cafes and much, much more. They are becoming campus beacons rather than campus backdoors—helping reduce stigma around health and wellbeing and any associated physical and mental health challenges. Such dynamic spaces make wellness a strong piece of campus DNA and help more students.

Just as no college campus is the same, there is no one way to reimagine a student health center. It is essential each project is calibrated to each institution’s student body and unique culture. That said, there are common themes that cut across leading-edge spaces in this typology. We have outlined five factors for success below:

Unite Health and Wellbeing Resources

Historically, institutions spread health and wellbeing resources across numerous buildings. Student counseling here, recreation over there, a health center on the other side of campus. More and more, modern health centers are uniting these resources and departments under one roof to “supercharge” their facility.

By providing a broader range of services and wellbeing resources in one place, students are more likely to visit, socialize and learn about the services they may not have known about otherwise.

The University of South Florida is a fantastic example of this as its new space will combine general medicine, sexual health, a pharmacy, urgent care, physical therapy, infection control and more. It also houses a multipurpose room for a variety of wellbeing programming and student functions that can extend into an adjacent wellness courtyard and recreation lawns.

Blend Indoor and Outdoor Spaces for Maximum Impact

There is extensive data that proves nature can improve health outcomes, accelerate recovery and elevate mood and mental health. It should be an essential part of any modern student health center.

First, it is critical to consider how a building welcomes nature inside. By maximizing natural daylight, biophilic design trends, views to surrounding campus landscape and more. Secondly, integrating outdoor spaces into the layout of the building can also be a very successful solution.

The University of Florida embraces this trend with its new Student Health Care Center as it is remarkably transparent—its facade allowing for views in and out. The building offers a central landscaped garden as an active “heart” of the building along with a roof terrace for outdoor wellness.

Design to New WELL Standards

How can a university claim without a doubt that their student health center is their healthiest building on campus? The WELL Building Standard is the roadmap for creating and certifying spaces that advance health and wellbeing. Moving beyond the more typical LEED certification, WELL focuses on ten factors that directly address mental and physical health.

An exciting departure from its 1930s predecessor, the aforementioned University of Florida Student Health Care Center is on pace to become the first WELL-certified higher education facility in the country, making it a model for other institutions to follow.

Flexibility and Adaptability are Key

Designing flexible and adaptable spaces for student health is key on every front. The goal is for these buildings is to drive value for institutions for 50 years or more. Undoubtedly, trends in student health and wellness will change over that time and a campus’s ability to evolve spaces along with these trends is critical. Creating multipurpose spaces and developing overarching masterplans for multiple possible futures helps make this possible.

And, as the past year has made clear, adaptability is also essential when more dramatic change is required in the face of a public health challenge or other black swan events. It’s incredible the many ways that student health centers have been able to remain resources to students and staff during the pandemic across the country.

Create Campus Hubs For Student Health and Wellbeing

Just as student health centers can become beacons on campus, they can also become essential to larger campus wellbeing strategies. By locating them strategically near other student life buildings, institutions can amplify their impact.

The University of South Florida project is again a great example as sits immediately next to both the school’s recreation center and one of its campus dining halls.  This creates an epicenter for health and wellbeing on campus.

Other institutions, like Northern Arizona University, have followed a similar path with their Health and Learning Center complex which combines student health and counseling with student life, athletics and recreation spaces, creating a new center for wellbeing.

At its core, this shift in student health and wellbeing buildings reflects the simple reality that these buildings can be much more than places to visit when students are sick. They can also be beacons for health, spaces for wellbeing education, mental health counseling, rejuvenation and much more.

This article was recently featured in Athletic Business.