What Does ‘House of Serendipity’ Mean?
by LENNY KOUPAL, CSU Communications Coordinator
How important is a student union to a student’s overall college experience?
At the Centennial Student Union at Minnesota State University, Mankato, validating our campus presence through a random student survey is something we do every couple of years. It provides valuable information and a reality check against what we say we do and what students generally and actually think of us.
And the survey says…our 2018 overall results graphically indicate that we are steadily advancing our overall effectiveness. Students further shared that, in 2018, we are ahead of the curve when compared to six national student unions of comparable size and services, reputable “Carnegie Class” institutions as well as all institutions completing surveys in 2018.
We can pat ourselves on the back, but we know there’s no resting on our laurels when it comes to our own expectations and, more importantly, our students’ expectations. As student union administrators, we know that college is more than classrooms and textbooks. So much of learning is accomplished outside the classroom – personally, socially and globally. We know that a strong student union presence plays a pivotal role in student success and growth. We know that a student union is more than brick and mortar. To help students, we know that a student union must be a living, evolving culture. It’s pulse must be the pulse of the campus.
Back in 2010, the CSU set out to define that culture by branding itself the “House of Serendipity.” The moniker seeking a place for unexpected discoveries – pleasant surprises – was taken from the words of the late C. Shaw Smith. Along with being a student union director and the former president of the Association of College Unions International, Smith was an accomplished magician.
That may have accounted for his philosophy that a quality student union should be a surprising, life-changing experience. “I like to call the Union the House of Serendipity,” Smith said. “You go for one thing and you get more than you bargained for. It’s inescapable. It gets into your head and into your heart, and you’re never quite the same again. The right Union will change you.” His words have become the mantra behind the mission and vision of the CSU.
Providing our students with a Serendipity experience started with our tagline “offering pleasant surprises ’round every corner.” That literal application morphed a few years later into a philosophical message that helped express the vision of the CSU. Now “offering pleasant surprises that INVITE, INVOLVE and INSPIRE,” the CSU views those three words as a Maslow-style progression of personal growth.
We seek to create an inviting environment where students can find the creature comforts – food, essential services, corners for studying or sleep and, most importantly, social interaction.
Once achieved, that level of comfortability encourages student to get involved. Coming into the CSU could lead to joining a fraternity or sorority, getting involved in student government, writing for the student newspaper or helping to plan homecoming, concerts or campus activities benefitting all students.
Such personal engagement inspires students to spread their wings as they explore and achieve personal confidence and leadership skills that will shape their careers and adult lives.
Along this journey of personal growth, students are supported by the CSU’s core values that seek to engage students along six prime objectives – Leadership, Integrity, Community, Personal Development, Innovation and Celebration.
So how does this all get back to the original question: How important is a student union to a students’ overall college experience?
Retention is such a key focus for Minnesota State Mankato as it is for universities across the country. At the heart of that discussion is the ability for a university to meet a student’s needs and expectations. As the student-centered heart of campus, the CSU sees the student union’s important role in adding broad-based value to the college experience. Sometimes to the surprise of our students.
Recently, the Washington Post offered a perspective from Jim Troha, a private college president who was also the parent of a prospective college student. The article – entitled VALUE MATTERS IN CHOOSING A COLLEGE. BUT NOT JUST THE PRICE KIND – shared Troha’s view of higher education from a different angle. Too often, college administrators size up value along yardsticks that measure scholarships, job-placement rates, graduate school enrollments and students’ marketable skills.
“What I don’t see, however, are people talking about value — and not the way grocery stores do — but value in terms of ideas, aspirations, the kind of person you want to become, the kind of experiences and environments that will bring out the best in you,” Troha said. “The kind of place where you will be surprised by uncovering your potential.”
By looking past price to value based on the culture of a university campus – in our case, a university student union – Troha said parents and students are better equipped to ask deeper questions.
“They realize potential, networks and the long game (so to speak) are of equal if not greater importance than the immediate details of cost comparisons,” he stated.
At Minnesota State Mankato, the goal is for each of us to visualize “Big ideas. Real-world thinking” in every one our students. The Centennial Student Union works to accept that calling by striving to offer a culture of value that pleasantly surprises students into realizing their full potential. Their big idea may be Serendipity of Self where global thinking is shaped through personal experiences that apply leadership, integrity, community, personal development, innovation and celebration. For the CSU, helping students equip themselves with those shared tools will maintain the student union’s important role in a valued and enduring college education.