Why every downtown needs a “student union” …

During my 10 years as a professor, I had a 300 sf office with a lounge chair, sound system and kitchenette with high ceilings and my entire collection of Maroon 5 stalking memorabilia. Yes, office wise, I was living the high-life. But most of the time you would not find me in my cushy digs … I would be camped out in DIGS (short for the DiGiorgio Campus Center), where the action was.   

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(My “tribe” in our annual pic with Santa in the DIGS lobby)

Something magical happened when the new student union opened on the Winthrop Campus. All of a sudden, there was a positive force, a magnet, bringing all the activity to the core of campus. Sure, the high end furnishings, Popeye’s and Starbucks didn’t hurt. But it was the people and services that the physical space brought together that created the buzz and harnessed the energy of the amazing student leadership, faculty, and staff that has always been there.

Walking into DIGS, you start to understand why people are drawn to it. Consolidated in one place are the people and departments whose job it is to help you connect and to be your best! Newbies are catered to and oriented to campus via the Office of New Student Programs. The award winning DSU programming board office is constantly buzzing bringing speakers, bands, and activities year round for the benefits of the students and the surrounding residents.

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(One of our favorite bands on the night they were introduced to us by the amazing student programming board!)

Anyone wanting to be plugged in, does so via the student union building. Digital announcements cover the walls and “table tents” fill you in on cultural events, physical activities, political rallies, and professional development workshops held throughout the building. Every time I was there I would encounter a “oh hey! I have been meaning to come by your office and talk about …. “from faculty and students who were highly unlikely to trek to my isolated office, resulting in countless collaborations and learning opportunities. Want to feel “in the know”, just hang out in the lobby for a bit and you will leave with a better understanding of the life-blood of the university.

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(MBA and undergraduate design students present their plans for downtown Rock Hill revitalization at the Old Town, New World Conference in DIGS)

The spaces, not just the people, cater to the needs of students and faculty alike. At any time of day you will find the many “circle sofas” filled with impromptu study groups, club board meetings, or just sleep-deprived students who know that there will always be a friendly face and an open slot for them. In every other corner of the building, you can find students huddles up and working away, escaping the isolation and distractions of dorm rooms and empty classrooms, to work in a supportive but structured environment. The student orgs office, a coworking space of sorts, offers hot-desking for any student to use and state of the art conferencing in an office space comparable to a trendy tech startup. Movie festivals, art exhibits, flash mobs, game nights, craft fairs, etc. constantly use the space because that is where the people are. Retail and food service from the surrounding neighborhoods gravitated as well.

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So, what can city planners and town councils learn from this?

People are people, and people seek people.

Quick quiz ….

“An Active Student Union Building” is to “A Vibrant College Campus” as _________________ is to “A Revitalized Downtown” …. Is the answer:

   A. A Mattress Store
   B. A Title Loan Office
   C. A Coworking Community
   D. None of the above
   E. All of the above

The answer, boys and girls, is C! (tip, when in doubt, always pick C!)

Coworking has come to be the professional equivalent of the campus student union. Professionals not wanting to be isolated in their dorm room (home office) or distracted by roommates (kids and dogs) are flocking to coworking environments as a place to get things done in a vibrant, supportive environment where they have the physical and human resources they need to be successful.

And what happens when people flock to an area? Everyone (everything) else benefits. Retail thrives … Organizations gain members … Service providers gain customers …. Neighborhood events are more heavily attended! Coworking communities are a perfect way for adults (ew! I hate that word!) to find your tribe, to create bonds with like-minded creatives and goal-seekers, to engage with each other and society, and to bring life and energy to the towns we inhabit.

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I once received a superlative award for being the one least likely to “ever, ever, ever, ever, ever leave the orientation program” at Winthrop. Part of that job was to encourage newbies to use the student union and its services for all they were worth and to get plugged in and engaged for the benefit of themselves and the campus. I am still an orientation leader at heart, and always will be … I just have a new set of newbies to serve! My biggest wish is that LOOM Coworking will be that magnet of positive energy for downtown Fort Mill and an essential support to our members!

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