photo of students who participated

We Ask the Experts

(Hint: it’s the Students…)

by Lauren Weiss

Five first-generation undergraduates walk into a library…

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and truth be told, there is a great deal of humorous banter occurring amongst the group. They’ve been tasked with critiquing the floor directories in the W. E. B. Du Bois Library elevator lobbies, and so far, their commentary regarding unexplained acronyms and heavily skewed text-to-image ratios rivals a Comedy Central roast. The lack of supporting visuals on the design even causes one student—a Library employee, no less—to whip out their phone in disgust and advocate for a complete overhaul with an interactive touch-screen replacement, found online for a couple hundred bucks.

While their hot takes draw snickers from the group and its facilitators, the students’ input is no laughing matter. It’s part of a co-creational approach to systems and spaces called participatory design, which emphasizes viewing users as stakeholders and including them in the design process.

“Students use campus facilities in a different way than we do as staff,” says Suenita Berube, data analyst at the Libraries and co-creator of the participatory design group. “They can be extremely helpful in guiding us and providing feedback on what we do. They also crave community, and groups like this give them a sense of empowerment and belonging.”

Berube and her colleagues, Annette M. Vadnais ’99, student success and outreach librarian, and Sarah Fitzgerald, assessment and planning librarian, always knew they wanted to consult students about the design of library spaces. When they heard about the University of Washington’s success with student focus groups, they reached out to the school and were connected with Scott W. H. Young and Hailley Fargo, two participatory design experts who travel to libraries across the country to present the value of this data and show how to set up such programs.

For Berube, Vadnais, and Fitzgerald, the focus was first-generation undergraduates: students who are the first in their families to attend college.

“From our combined experience with data, it showed that first-gens who use the Libraries had higher rates of retention and graduation,” says Vadnais, who is herself a proud first-generation UMass alumna. “We wanted to hear from these students specifically about their experiences with the Libraries and get their input on what would help other first-gen students.”

The co-creators carefully planned a nine-session workshop where participants learned about the Libraries and decided collectively on a final project that would help other first-generation students navigate the Libraries’ resources, services, and spaces. Participants were compensated for their time and provided with lunch. The invitation to students to participate received an overwhelming response; after reviewing all applicants, facilitators chose a diverse six-student cohort representing different class years and majors.

For many of the participants, it was their first experience with participatory design and also the Libraries themselves. The sheer size of the Du Bois Library, with 27 active floors, is in and of itself intimidating for many students, regardless of college experience; add to that the unfamiliarity, uncertainty, and, to some degree, otherness that first-generation students commonly feel, and it becomes easy to understand the barriers.

“I think that first-gen students might be apprehensive to ask for help more than other groups of students,” one participant wrote in their survey answers. “I know that is the case for me. That can manifest itself in thinking that I don’t have the same needs as others, because I think of myself as an outsider.”

Berube, Vadnais, and Fitzgerald made it their mission to change that for their first student cohort, starting with group bonding activities, like designing and sharing personalized trading cards, to build a sense of trust and community.

“We can’t stress enough the importance of the icebreakers,” says Vadnais. “We need the students to become comfortable around each other and us so that they feel comfortable giving honest feedback later on in the sessions. It also helps them to meet other first-gen students like themselves and feel a sense of belonging.”

In addition to community-building, the students toured the Du Bois Library and were asked to complete activities based on what they learned from the two-day workshop, and which were customized to find out how these students experienced the campus Libraries. For example, during one session, students were asked to make collages demonstrating how they wanted the Libraries to make them feel. Another session involved imagining the Libraries as a type of vehicle.

“My collage was mainly focused on the library making me feel welcomed and able to do my work, comfortable, being able to learn. I like that there is a cafe, many study places, nice people to help, tons of resources. The view is also really good. It helps me forget about other things.”

When it came time to select the final project, the students voted to develop social media content to increase awareness of Library study spaces.

“I think it’s important because first-gen students might not know about study areas available to them,” says one participant. “I know for a long time, I exclusively studied and did work in my room, and it felt incredibly isolating.”

“As a first-gen student, everything may be new to you,” another participant adds, “but finding good spaces can make you feel like you belong.”

That sentiment is exactly why Vadnais and Berube were eager to dive back in to take a closer look at spaces and belonging. Joined by Lauren Weiss, associate editor, digital content, and a collaborator on the Libraries Outreach Series, they formed a new focus group with the primary goal of revamping RECESS, a new study-break space on Floor 2 of the Du Bois Library. RECESS, which stands for Recharge, Engage, Connect, Energize, Support, and Succeed, serves as a place where students play board games, engage in arts and crafts, and congregate with friends. It’s also a hub for the weekly Libraries Outreach Series and collaborative events with student groups.

Since RECESS was opened in the fall of 2022, use by students has outgrown the limited amount of secondhand furniture available in the space, particularly for popular events such as craft nights and bingo. With enthusiastic support from Nandita S. Mani, PhD, Dean of University Libraries, they were given the opportunity to collect student input to inform a remodel of the space, truly making it a place by and for the students.

“My collage reflects my experience with libraries and my expectations of libraries. For me, the library is a place to broaden your horizons academically and culturally. It is within libraries that I have encountered new ideas that forced me to question and refine my beliefs. I think that owes itself to the even playing field that exists within libraries. Everyone has a voice at the library, especially those who are oppressed elsewhere.”

That task was not one the focus group students took lightly. Amidst the casual atmosphere, snacks, and occasional bursts of laughter, they diligently sketched out visions of RECESS at its full potential, with gaming consoles, an arts and crafts corner, ping-pong and air hockey, and even an expression wall. While this won’t be the final or definitive word on the space, it charts a course for incorporating student input to help continually co-create a library that serves them; one that will continue to be transformed by the unique experiences and needs of its student stakeholders.

Top photo L to R: Mariana Passos ’25; Grayson Tyler ’26; Naomie Iffetayo ’23; Carlos Pereira ’23; Eowyn Vucci ’26.