Student Recreation Center creates lasting impact on students’ personal growth, sense of belonging

Contact: Kaitlynn Boot

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University students who utilize the Student Recreation Center (SRC) experience positive personal growth and well-being outcomes as well as an increase in feelings of belonging, according to a recent study conducted by the University.

In spring 2022, WMU’s Division of Student Affairs' assessment, marketing and communications unit organized a benchmarking study through the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Assessment and Knowledge Consortium. The goal of this study was to capture valuable data on student experiences and examine the impact these areas have on student learning, growth and development.

The findings include that 94% agree that using the SRC regularly improves their well-being, physical strength and mental health. They conclude the impact of the SRC on students’ lives extends beyond physical strength and fitness level into non-fitness skills vital for academic success and post-grad life.

In addition, the University found the SRC has a significant impact on student’s feelings of well-being with more than 80% of students experiencing an increase in their overall health when using the SRC six to seven times a week. When measured against national data for the same study, Western's SRC facilities and programs ranked higher in areas of student skill development, such as leadership, communication and multicultural awareness, as well as having a sense of student adjustment and belonging. 

Recreation and wellness benchmark study parameters

The Recreation and Wellness Benchmark Study, which ran from March 21 to April 18, 2022, contained 138 questions and was distributed to a demographically representative sample of more than 4,000 undergraduate students currently enrolled at Western. Students surveyed reported using the SRC in the past two years.

The online assessment provided actionable data on: 

  • Student utilization of various recreational facilities, activities and programs  
  • Social, academic, emotional and health-related outcomes of utilizing campus recreation 
  • Student satisfaction with various facilities, activities and programs 
  • Needs and expectations of students regarding university recreation 

SRC programs allow students to expand awareness and improve skills 

For most students, college is a time to broaden their horizons and meet new people from diverse backgrounds. These experiences can happen in classrooms or through study abroad programs and also through recreation. Western students view the SRC as a safe space where they can expand their awareness and understanding of other cultures.

“Sports and fitness are global,” says Beth Northuis, assistant director of fitness and wellness at the SRC. “That’s something that brings people together and brings people that maybe don’t speak the same language to come and participate together, and you’re learning about them and their culture at the same time as working out.” 

Senior Cedric Gnamien

The ability to learn about other cultures is something that electrical engineering senior Cedric Gnamien has experienced firsthand as an SRC facility manager. “I’m from another country. I’ve been working with people from Korea here, the Congo, [people] from America… [The SRC] helped me to learn about other people just from doing my workout or doing my work here,” he says.

Additionally, students who use the SRC experience greater gains in outcomes related to their interpersonal and life skills including learning to cooperate with others, exercising their problem-solving abilities, learning risk assessment skills and growing as leaders.

“I’ve seen relationships form and leadership take form from our students that just come in and participate in our classes,” adds Northuis. “Some of them take that leap to want to teach classes on their own, but they also take the initiative to bring someone brand new to come and try a fitness class out.” 

In addition to becoming a good leader, biological sciences major Ryth Seiler says the SRC has helped her improve her ability to communicate more effectively with others, a skill that 69% of Western students agree the SRC provides. “Just coming down here and seeing new faces, talking to people, I’ve definitely been able to communicate more with people, engage (and) be social,” Seiler says.

She adds the communication skills she’s grown through her position as an SRC site manager will help her transition into post-grad life. “I definitely feel like I’ve learned to communicate better with others, to be more patient and responsible… life skills I feel will transfer well to when I graduate and my career of choice.” 

Students better manage stress and improve academic performance 

According to The American Institute of Stress, 8 out of 10 college students experience frequent bouts of stress as a result of their schoolwork. While the endless balancing act between school, work and social life can feel overwhelming, exercise and group sports are an excellent way to keep focused and stay on track.

Accounting major and intramural sports participant Bryce Baker agrees with the 90% of WMU students who think the SRC helps them with stress management. “I feel like playing [intramural sports] helps me reduce stress, and also gives me the chance to focus on something outside of school but is still in the same realm,” he explains. 

In a similar vein, 80% of WMU students agree that participating in campus recreation definitely or somewhat improved their academic performance.

Junior August Glei, a facility manager at the SRC and a frequent participant in club sports and SRC fitness classes, says the focus and discipline extracurricular activities require help him perform better in his classes. “Staying in [club] sports and being active in a community has always boosted [me]… it gives me a goal to work toward. School comes before sports, but if you want to play that sport you still have to do well in school.”

Electrical engineering senior Colin Goldschmidt notes that starting his day with a workout or F45 class helps create consistency and productivity, both of which help him with his schoolwork. “I’ve found every day I go to the SRC in the mornings I’m a lot more productive in school. Every time I have an exam I make sure that I’m here beforehand,” he says.  

SRC creates a space where students belong  

Community and a sense of belonging are vital for students' academic success and long-term mental health. The benchmarking study found that 73% of WMU students say that the SRC facilities and programs have allowed them to increase or improve their sense of belonging, with 77% reporting their participation has allowed them to develop lasting friendships.

Junior, Cece Steck, F45 instructor and SRC personal trainer

“[The SRC] is not just a weight room. We control club teams, IM sports… there’s just a lot of opportunities,” says F45 instructor and personal trainer Cece Steck. “Talking to people who work here you can find your own thing to do.”  

Junior Ellie McKean, an SRC customer service specialist and intramural sports participant, agrees. “I’ve made tons of friends going to (fitness and F45) classes,” she says. “Everyone is usually really open. It’s a great space if you’re just starting out as a beginner to come in and have people that are open and ready to support you on your fitness journey.”  

In addition to building community and relationships, the SRC’s numerous programs foster a strong sense of loyalty, advocacy and respect amongst its attendees.

I’ve developed a lot of loyalty and become an advocate for my refs,” says industrial and entrepreneurial engineering student Madison Wegner. “(As a site manager for the SRC), it’s my job to stand up for them and make sure they understand how they need to be treated. I feel like my loyalty and being a team player can very much translate into future jobs.”

Lasting impact 

The SRC and its programs are constantly evolving to better serve Western students. Despite the uncertainty and challenges posed by the global pandemic in recent years, and the shifting needs of its attendees, the SRC continues to make a significant and lasting impact on students in ways that benefit them in the long term. Not only is the SRC influencing students to pursue healthy lifestyles, fostering strong relationships and helping them develop important life skills, the SRC is also influencing their decision to attend and continue studying at WMU. 

“I’ve been going to the SRC all four years here at Western,” says Facility Manager Kenny Olaiya, “and I can say it’s been one of the most pivotal moments of my life because it’s where I’ve met some of the most important people to me. I’ve been able to network, branch out… I’ve been able to do things for the community, meet many different people. It’s given me the chance to broaden my horizons and meet people from all different walks of life. I’ve made real, lifelong relationships.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.