Reflecting on Student Life Environmental Audit
During the winter of 2008 I partnered with four other OSU students to conduct an environmental audit of the Student Life offices. The goal of the audit was to assess the office spaces and determine in what ways they were welcoming and accessible to students and in what ways they could be perceived as unwelcoming and inaccessible. In presenting the findings, I learned a great deal about the difficulties that can come when challenging others in regards to multicultural sensitivity.
The PowerPoint version of the audit results is linked to here
Although there were many encouraging features within all of the offices, it was the critiques that garnered the most conversation once the information was realized to the various directors. One of the most complicated conversations that occurred were ones concerning people’s personal work spaces. It was hard to convey that people’s personal offices are also perceived as public spaces by many students. Students see the posters, cultural artifacts, decor and accessibility of spaces as symbols of the university: its values and beliefs. As such these factors greatly influence whether they feel comfortable in a space, connect with the values and beliefs presented, and are willing to partake in the services offered there. For example, the student conduct office has a number of posters with different values on them like integrity, responsibility, and respect- while all of these values are deeply connected to our work, students could perceive them as subtle challenges to their own values system. Students may think, “Why am I sitting in a room where values are being defined for me? Do they not think I have my own standards of ethics and morals?” And if they are feeling subtle challenges from the environment, they may be confrontional at the start of a hearing, something that no one wants. In another example, one office space featured a table of computers and all put one where up on a high ledge where only people who could sit on bar stools or stand could access them. Students who couldn’t access those computers may think “This office isn’t providing equal access to all students. Maybe they don’t value all students. They must not value me; they won’t be able to help me”. In both of these situations, subtle environmental clues could have major affects on the effectiveness of an office’s ability to serve students.
With these examples in mind, the message that the auditors were trying to send was for people to be more aware of the messages they were sending, not necessary take any specific items down or completely abandon all personalized work spaces. While I was quite proud of the work that I had did as a leader of the audit team, I was disappointed in the overall result. I think this had a lot to do with the way that the information was dispersed. The original plan was to give a presentation during a Student Life meeting, but after talking with the Dean of Student Life it was decided that it would be better (and probably from my standpoint easier) to give the information to the directors of the various offices and let them bring it up in their own staff meetings. I agreed to it at first, because I didn’t want the individual offices feeling like we were airing their dirty laundry for all to see. However, I think that the other auditors and I lost a great deal of our overall message by letting each director address it on their own. I was unable to put the presentation in a larger context and so individual offices took it upon themselves to find the messages that they wanted to harp on and ignored the larger questions. Given that the bigger issues were observable in most offices, I am positive that it would have been best to at least debrief with the entire group after individual offices had debriefed alone. This would have given me the opportunity to learn what examples or subjects would be too sensitive to talk about and made the presentation a lot more effective.
Having had this experience, I look forward to doing a similar audit at the place I work. The information I gained will definitely benefit me in the years to come and it has made me much more sensitive and aware of my surroundings and what they mean to me and what they could mean to others. I now have a better understanding of the challenges in presenting this material and am positive that it will be a better experience the next time I do it.