Perspectives March 20, 2024

The Great Escape: Creating an Ecosystem of Spaces for Well-Being

By Jennifer Williams and Jessica Figenholtz

College students today are stressed. 66% of U.S college students reported they feel stressed daily, alongside other high levels of negative emotions. In the face of the constant change and demands of campus life, students are searching for ways to decompress and reconnect with themselves. While critical psychological and clinical health services provide necessary resources, thoughtfully designed supplemental respite spaces can unlock opportunities for institutions to support holistic student well-being. A diverse ecosystem of campus spaces can offer meaningful and needed opportunities for students to rest, recover, reset, and care for their mental health.

What do we mean by an ecosystem of spaces? And how can students take a mental “vacation” to escape and reconnect for five minutes, an hour, or an afternoon without stepping off campus? The following unique spaces are examples of how mental health support can extend beyond traditional wellness rooms to all areas of campus, serving a diverse range of student needs.

Recovery Zones

The life of a student-athlete comes with an extraordinary set of demands to perform both on and off the court, training room, or playing field. With expectations to maintain top physical and academic performance, student-athletes are increasingly seeking mental health support to deal with these pressures and dedicated spaces for decompression can help.

Unlike typical athletic facilities, recovery zones aren’t branded with high-energy mantras and logos. Subdued and flexible interior features, instead promote focus and relaxation, alongside an ability to be a private or shared space. In a break between practices, games, or classes, student-athletes can rest and reset, leaving these zones refreshed and prepared to tackle their next activity.

In Boston University’s renovated Men’s Basketball Suite, an intimate room will be closed off from the active locker room and lounge spaces to provide dedicated space for respite.
Saint Joseph’s University’s Athletic Center will feature a quiet, spa-like recovery lounge where shared spaces can be sectioned off for areas of individual rest.
Campfire rooms can help bring the outside in when informal and peaceful outdoor gathering spaces are inaccessible due to season or weather.

Campfire Rooms

Upper-level students are often heavily involved in organizations, activities, and advanced academic courses that keep them busy on campus. In limited free time, peer connection commonly happens in crowded residence halls, student centers, or dining halls. Campuses are often lacking quiet and relaxing communal gathering spaces in these student life buildings. Campfire rooms offer a quiet, soothing, and intimate space with comfortable seating around an indoor fire pit. Access to these cozy rooms is often by reservation, supporting intentional and thoughtful connection with friends amongst the buzz of campus activities.

Music Pods

Graduate students face challenges in balancing rigorous academic schedules with professional training and home life. Shifting the brain’s focus towards a creative outlet such as playing an instrument is a proven method to decrease anxiety and enhance mental health. Acoustically isolated music pods within residence halls can provide students with a space to let the tunes flow, without the need to travel across campus or worry about disrupting neighbors.

Weil Cornell Medicine’s 74th Street Residences embodies the institution’s mantra, “Music as Medicine” by including music pods for graduate student residents.
Within George Mason University’s academic Horizon Hall, the “MIX” maker space serves as a hub for students to converge, collaborate, and create.

Tinker Spaces

First-year students are often overwhelmed, faced with being away from home and long-time friends for the first time. A place to engage in creative activities provides an opportunity to form new friendships with like-minded people, especially in a large campus environment where they may struggle to find peers with shared interests. The practice of tinkering, alongside other activities such as arts-and-crafts, cooking, sewing, and carpentry, can relieve the stress of student’s early campus journeys. Whether it’s in a residence hall, campus center, or academic building, a space dedicated to mindfulness and exploration of skills can foster a sense of accomplishment and belonging among students.

Let’s create a future where an ecosystem of spaces designed for well-being is common ground on campuses.

Realizing These Spaces

While new construction is a blank slate for bringing these opportunities to life, these types of spaces are just a sampling of what can be realized through renovations to existing campus assets. At Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, an underutilized racquetball court is transforming into a wellness area; a closet could become a music pod; an often-vacant classroom could be converted to a tinker space. Don’t wait for a major construction or renovation project to start—spaces that support mental health can be created, sometimes with minimal intervention, in existing facilities.

As students continue to blur the boundaries between where they work, study, eat, sleep, and play, campus leadership should strive to prioritize resources and initiatives that carve out these intentional spaces for decompression and escape across campus. Let’s create a future where an ecosystem of spaces designed for well-being is common ground on campuses.

These institutional examples also translate to other environments beyond higher education. Intentional well-being spaces can serve professionals within the workplace managing deadlines, children in grade school facing peer pressure, healthcare providers combatting burnout, and residents within a mixed-use housing development searching for a sense of community. The search—and realization—of the “great escape” is relevant for everyone.