Belong in Campus Recreation: Leadership Testimonials

belong in campus recreation

Marc Iturriaga spoke with multiple campus recreation leaders and shares how their departments are showing students they belong in campus recreation.

Ask any campus recreation director and they will say their challenges lie in the recruitment and retention of participants. They focus on filling spaces with programs and rentals while negotiating access through cost and convenience. Success is measured by space utilization targets, how many memberships are sold, program registration numbers and head count in spaces. This often leads to a siloed approach to programming, marketing and engagement, staff development, and revenue generation as staff are focused on their own spaces such as the fitness center, pool, gym, guest services, etc. rather than the shared people who utilize the entire center.

Having been in collegiate recreation and community development for over 20 years in multiple leadership capacities, I have experienced and created measurable change in student recreation behavior by intentionally focusing on fostering a sense of belonging over everything else. At the University of Waterloo, we increased recreation programming participation from 11,000 to over 30,000 participants in under five years with no substantial change to the population of the school or the addition of new facilities by prioritizing student belonging over everything else. Not only did this result in higher participation numbers, but also sustainable revenue streams, better utilization of resources, stronger support for collegiate recreation’s value on campus, and increased student connection to each other and the institution.

We realized the majority of student’s motivation to participate wasn’t because of competition, extreme fitness or skill development but for fun and social connectivity. We didn’t get rid of the former motivational factors; we just didn’t make it the only focus anymore. We shifted our focus and resources to help students feel like they belong in campus recreation. It wasn’t just one initiative or change that worked, it was an entire culture shift in the way we thought about campus recreation.

We looked at every aspect of our programs, staffing, marketing, policies and procedures to see what changes we could make to help students feel like they belong. This included name changes to programs, a wider spectrum of activities that focused on different skill levels and motivations, an increase in student led activities including a commitment to supporting in the co-creation of programs, and training staff beyond rules and policies.

Adam Steeves, who started as a student staff member with me at the University of Waterloo, continues fostering belonging as the senior manager for Recreation. Adam shared with me some great examples of initiatives that continue to help foster a sense of belonging for their students. They used a poster board campaign to highlight students from all different backgrounds and faculties who are involved in some sort of recreational activity and what their engagement has meant for their overall wellness during their career on campus. In total, they profiled 37 different students from across all faculties and posted them in prominent places across campus.

“The idea was not to promote what programs are offered specifically, but to show the positive benefits that physical activity can have on academic performance and social engagement as well as the individuals’ overall mental health,” said Steeves.

They also created a Warrior Recreation Ambassador Program, where student ambassadors share their health and wellness tips, opportunities and experiences with other students. “This contributed to a culture of peer mentorship and increased sense of belonging for students as they connect authentically with classmates,” shared Steeves.

Across North America, I have spoken with friends and colleagues about belonging in campus recreation, and have learned about many wonderful programs and initiatives they have undertaken to foster belonging among our diverse student populations.

How Schools are Showing Students They Belong in Campus Recreation

At the University of Texas at San Antonio, Victoria Lopez-Herrera, the senior associate director of Campus Recreation, shared during Hispanic Heritage Month, they hosted an incentive program for group exercise that incorporated the use of a traditional Mexican bingo card called “Loteria” with educational information on the history of the game.

Moe McGonagle, the Campus Recreation director of CENTERS, LLC at DePaul University, showed a commitment to enhancing belonging by prominently painting the words “YOU BELONG HERE” in their fitness center. She also is working with her staff to be more intentional about student belonging.

At Mount Royal University, Chad Van Dyk, the Recreation Sport supervisor, developed a drop-in pickleball league that changed the traditional intramural model to focus on fun and social connection through facilitating the experience for each participant who walked through the door, ensuring they all felt invited, welcomed and included to play. His colleague Jesse Sheets, the Adventure Programming supervisor, revamped the climbing wall culture from one focused on elite and experienced climbers, to a facility bustling at lunch time where students of all abilities and experience are climbing.

Lastly, at Elon University, Larry Melinger, the director of Campus Recreation and Wellness, shared a campus-wide initiative called ABC: Act-Belong-Commit, an intentional engagement strategy that leads to an active, resilient and mentally healthy campus community. “It’s a philosophical change on how everything on campus is connected,” said Melinger. “Do something active, do something together and do something meaningful — that’s the ABCs of mental health.”

Larry and his team at Elon put this into practice by asking who is not in their programs. Then they began to have conversations with people and groups about why they are not in campus recreation and what they can do to get them there. Through these conversations, they understood it is not about answering those questions by asking students to fit into the current system, but co-creating opportunities for students in a space they are comfortable in.

“It doesn’t mean we only seek to integrate students into existing programs, but part of promoting ABC means we might have to change the way we do business,” said Melinger. “The goal is not to get you in the rec center, but for students to develop behaviors and relationships that highlight the ABC philosophy showing my community is responsible for my well-being and vice versa. The framework is changing how we define success, develop programs and foster campus partnerships.”

When people feel like they belong, they feel welcome, invited and included. We will begin to see a tipping point on our campus of more students being more active, more often. When campus recreation puts more resources into fostering belonging rather than into systems, facilities and infrastructure, we will begin to see a revolution of a healthier society.

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Marc Iturriaga is the founder of Bonobo: Fostering Belonging in Sport+Recreation+Community. Marc has over 20 years building inclusive programs and communities through his work in higher education, sport and recreation, and community development. He has held senior leadership roles in Campus Recreation at several institutions and frequently volunteers with NIRSA, most recently as an appointed faculty for their School of Collegiate Recreation.

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