To help campus communities feel valued and included, many colleges and universities are investing in identity spaces. These spaces foster a sense of belonging and provide platforms for individuals with shared identities, experiences, or interests to find community and thrive.

“We want students to be able to take full advantage of extraordinary educational opportunities, and to do that they must feel welcome and that they belong,” says Kristina K. Bethea Odejimi, associate vice president for belonging, community, and engagement and dean of students at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “Identity spaces provide room for all students to learn about different cultures and a place for students to connect across their identities, expanding their personal understanding of themselves and the world around them, and helping them make deep connections with those with shared experiences.”

Achieving those goals requires thoughtful planning and honest communication during the design process and even after construction is complete.

Here are five lessons learned from university staff who helped design identity centers on their campuses.



It’s vital to get input from students and staff—not just on color preferences and layouts, but also on how the space will function, and why.

Although in-person design charettes have long been the preferred way to convene stakeholders, not everyone can make time to participate in those types of discussions.

“We were having such vulnerable conversations with the students,” says Jennifer Ingram, an architect who worked with Emory University to renovate its existing identity areas and design new, expanded spaces.

“We wanted to understand how the space can best reflect their needs and the things they care about.”

The design team found a workaround by using tools like Instagram and an online whiteboard to enable more students to take part.

“The job of a student center is to build community,” says Dean Smith, senior director of student centers at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, North Carolina.

For Smith, “community” doesn’t only apply to the group being served, but also all the other students on campus and the people in town.

“You’re doing well if your group feels comfortable in your space,” he continues.

“You’re doing extraordinarily well when other people are using the space, like when the cultural center is showing art from a local school or releasing butterflies as part of a sustainability project.”

In other words, student centers should do what they can to serve the community as a whole.

Proactive engagement became especially important during the return of in-person teaching after the pandemic lockdown.

“We had many students asking if they had to ‘join’ our center because we had lost some of the tradition of students introducing new students to it while we were in the virtual format,” says Mark Rasdorf, director of the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center at ECU.

“I felt some new messaging was necessary, so we put up a sign that says, ‘All humans are welcome here.’”

The phrase is a reference to a t-shirt popular in the LGBTQ+ community that spells out “HUMAN” in rainbow-colored letters.

Although identity centers should be visible and welcoming, personal identity can be a complex issue.

The most successfully designed centers take this into account by incorporating “quieter” access points and spaces.

“Not everyone is ready to be open and out,” says Doni Aldine, a consultant for Colorado State University who worked on the design of the Pride Resource Center.

“Some students expressed a desire for an additional, more discreet entrance.”

In addition to alternate entrances, staff and students might need private offices and rooms for prayer or meditation.

Identity spaces constantly need to adjust to the preferences of new student cohorts and shifting societal norms, so they’re always works in progress.

“Being responsive to the needs and wants of our students is important,” says Gabriela Lemus, director of the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center at ECU. “There’s always change, and that’s a good thing.”

Welcoming spaces have ripple effects, creating a momentum that extends beyond the university.

“Just yesterday I got an email from an alum who is now a teacher,” Lemus says, adding that the former student remembered experiences they’d had at the culture center and wanted to celebrate different cultures in their own classroom.

“They felt welcome in our space when they were a student and wanted to create a similar feel for their students. They experienced inclusion in action, and they want to pass it on.”