Have you ever been in a new place for the first time, yet somehow still felt a sense of belonging or familiarity? If you have, that feeling or recognition is known as a “sense of place.” Achieving a sense of place, or creating community, is tied to having a strong identity and character that are recognized and felt by visitors and residents. These are powerful feelings conveyed by a combination of small details and many larger efforts, and providing that feeling is important for community colleges.
Achieving a sense of place for community college students and prospective students is critical and can be a challenge because our students, faculty and staff all commute to and from work and classes. No one actually lives here, and yet it is home. So how do we create a community where no one lives?
At Waubonsee Community College, our district spans urban, suburban and rural settings. We have worked hard to make sure each of our four physical campuses has a unique identity and still feels very much like part of the college. While the effort begins with architectural plans and details that carry through all of our buildings and campuses, it also extends to our online courses, branding efforts online and in the community, and to the care of our grounds.
Our Sugar Grove Campus is built around the shores of Huntoon Lake, and many comment when they visit here that it feels like a four-year, residential campus. The natural setting which includes a lake, oak savanna and surrounding prairies adds to the beauty and peacefulness. We worked hard to replicate that feeling in 2010 when we opened our Plano Campus, where the building offers sweeping views of Lake Plano. In our state’s second most populous city, our Aurora Downtown Campus features architecture, landscaping and river views that have a way of letting visitors know they are at Waubonsee. When we renovated our Aurora Fox Valley Campus earlier this year, one of the many goals was to make sure that the building continued the sense of place that makes us look and feel like Waubonsee.
Our Campus Operations department plays an important role in establishing the college as a leader in sustainability, natural beauty and earth-friendly practices. Their efforts continue year-round through participation in our Earth Week activities, leading our continuing Tree Campus U.S.A. designation and diligent cultivation of our landscapes and facilities.
These efforts aren’t only achieved through the look and feel of our grounds and buildings. The creation of community comes from establishing a unique culture and our ability to connect and engage. At Waubonsee, our student services departments provide students with a full complement of ways to engage with each other and our faculty and staff, and to build a network and community of lifetime connections during their time here. The importance of this piece of the experience is echoed endlessly by some of our most successful alumni, who say that it was connections they made with favorite professors or through experiences gained in student clubs and sports that inspired their continued academic and career paths.
Community colleges also enroll a more fluid student body with shorter degree and certificate programs as well as a higher percentage of part-time students. This year, we implemented a New Student Convocation for our new students. During the event – held during the first week of classes – the college community came together to welcome new students to their academic life, share advice and celebrate. Establishing a welcoming and familiar environment is one factor that helps our students persist toward graduation and their academic and career goals. That is why it is everyone’s job – from our groundskeepers to our professors - to connect with students and nurture their unique paths and aspirations.
While success can be difficult to measure, one indicator is the number of students engaged in the academic and extracurricular life of our college. Studies agree that these efforts have a positive impact on student completion and retention. Teaching and learning are the core of our mission, and we know that our mission is best supported by spaces that build a sense of belonging and community.