Three Elements of a Positively Oriented Environment

This article is part four of a four-part series. To read from the beginning, start here.

This academic year, SCAD completed the single largest building project in university history, the Hive, a community of eight residence halls — the epic culmination of SCAD’s philosophy of designing positive environments. No barren cinderblock rooms at SCAD!

In this series, we’ve looked at the phenomenon of FOMO in contemporary society, especially its prevalence among Millennials and iGens, and how colleges and universities address (and sometimes aggravate) the condition of anxiety among their hardworking students. I want to conclude with a discussion of how SCAD imagines and realizes a positive atmosphere to foster more confident and resilient students. In other words, what essential qualities guide SCAD’s design of the learning environment, in order to create good vibes?

1. Clarity

It is well documented that anxiety increases when students feel surrounded by “uncertainty and discomfort,” which is why SCAD emphasizes clarity in classroom instruction by articulating, publishing, and implementing well-defined academic expectations in every class, in every degree program, at every location. A desire for clarity and consistency in teaching may sound obvious, but it’s not: Think about your own college experience, the first day of the term, coming home to your dorm room with a stack of syllabi — some were long and thoughtfully written, others bare and spare, some syllabi described all grading opportunities in detail, others were seemingly created by e.e. cummings, looking more like early modernist poetry than a thoughtfully researched document describing approved student learning outcomes designed to prepare students for professional careers.

All SCAD syllabi — thousands of pages written by faculty members and approved by chairs every academic quarter — follow a specific, comprehensive template in form and content, so that students know the what, when, why, where, who, and how of every course.

Consistency is key. Each SCAD syllabus includes the course description and goals, specific student learning outcomes, grading opportunities and weights, scheduled field trips and extra help sessions (each course must have one of each, minimum), extended learning opportunities, university-wide academic policies, and most importantly, an extensive schedule of classes describing the content covered, assignments due, assignments given, and detailed learning engagement activities for each class meeting. A great syllabus won’t eliminate a student’s anxiety, but it helps. Coherent, consistent pedagogy eliminates unnecessary angst.

2. Beauty

Around every corner of SCAD, students meet delight and surprise, wonder and beauty. This physical manifestation of positivity is the central theme of SCAD: Architecture of a University, a new photography book from Assouline celebrating the historic preservation, heritage conservation, and contemporary interiors of SCAD around the world. Art, furnishings, historic flourishes, and architectural details influence emotional and psychological belonging and contentment. Students want to be in SCAD places. They, like all humankind, are drawn to beauty and beautiful things.

The university recently launched SCAD Art Sales, helping veteran and new art-buyers find the right artwork for any space, to help bring beauty and warmth to homes and headquarters the world over.

Art suffuses all of SCAD. You can find it in hallways, foyers, classrooms, meeting rooms, guest rooms, green rooms, dorm rooms, even restrooms. The Journal of Holistic Healthcare reports that looking at art even for a very short time reduces cortisol, while another study found a link between bland interiors and ADHD in children. According to Psychological Science, researchers found that, quote, “jaw-dropping or awe-inspiring moments can potentially improve our 21st-century well-being.”

At SCAD, jaws drop on the regular. Just the other day, Miss J Alexander of America’s Next Top Model (and longstanding runway coach extraordinaire for SCAD FASHWKND), commenting on a recent Instagram post about a new Michael Porten hallway installation at SCAD Atlanta, wrote, “I’m beginning to think that the campus itself is turning into the world’s largest exhibition of art.”

Miss J gets it.

All across the happy halls of SCAD, students experience motivating, mood-enhancing, wondrously positive aesthetic moments of surprise and delight. Here in SCAD Savannah’s Adler Hall, home of graphic design and advertising, students relax and prepare for class in “the glampground.”

3. Joy

SCAD presents an organic exhibition to enhance living and learning, where comfort, style, and good humor imbue the four global campuses with wit and sparkle. You can’t not love being here. It’s fun, in part, because SCAD creates and stages showcase events that celebrate our students and the professions they’re entering every day, from SCAD aTVfest and SCAD deFINE ART to the current double exhibition of Guo Pei: Couture Beyond at SCAD FASH in Atlanta and the Pei Ling Chan Gallery in Savannah, the first U.S. exhibitions of the greatest designer in the history of China.

Events and exhibitions like these draw the attention of international media, local community, and students in a glorious celebration of the best of human culture. It’s hard to fear missing out when you’re in the place to be.

In 2018, Assouline releases Guo Pei: Couture Beyond, a historic collaboration between SCAD and China’s leading couture visionary.

When it’s all said and done, the best evidence for student health and wellbeing, from everyday anxiety to more serious medical challenges, is found in the lives of SCAD students and graduates. As president of the institution I’ve served for 40 years, I’m fortunate to hear from young and accomplished artists and designers every day. They send hand-lettered cards, images of their work, emails, direct messages, letting me know how they’re flourishing in a world that once seemed so daunting, so big, so unknown.

Often, these students are still at SCAD, such as Sugandha Gupta, a fibers student from Delhi, India, who was born with albinism, a rare genetic condition that has rendered her legally blind. Sugandha wrote me a note earlier this year and kindly agreed to let me share it with you. She wrote of a lifetime of academic difficulties, battling her condition and the limitations of learning environments throughout secondary and primary education — until, gratefully, she found SCAD.

“From the beginning,” she writes, “I was encouraged to dig deep and create work that means something to me. This was a golden opportunity, allowing me to produce work about how I experience life through my heightened sense of touch, sound, and smell. I have great appreciation for the professors who encourage and guide me patiently.”

She goes on to talk about her journey, learning to navigate the built environment of SCAD. “I am also grateful for SCAD security,” she says, “empowering me to move around safely.”

Sugandha’s fibers work is both highly architectural and personal, revealing a sensuality and tactility unique to her experience in the world.

My favorite part of her touching letter comes when she describes the SCAD Savannah evacuation to SCAD Atlanta during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. (You can read all about that unexpected educational experience here!) She writes:

“During Hurricane Irma, I was amazed at the way that SCAD took care of us, ensuring we reached Atlanta safely and planning activities for us. During the evacuation, I witnessed the spectacular work of Guo Pei. I was spellbound. It was a perfect world of textiles and textures. Two weeks later, while working in our studio in Savannah, my professor walked in with Guo Pei and I had the most surreal experience of my life, a moment that I can never ever forget!”

I love Sugandha’s thoughtful note because it reminds me how all these elements work together to create the positively oriented university environment described in the SCAD mission: thoughtfully designed and personal instruction, careful attention to physical comfort and safety, exhibitions that dazzle the mind, guest artists who share their wisdom with students, and most importantly, opportunities to explore and express one’s aesthetic vision of the world.

Anxiety, from FOMO to agoraphobia, from panic disorder to PTSD, is a national health crisis. But solutions exist. You’re not alone. If things seem bleak, please, seek help. And if it’s merely a matter of low-level anxiety about all you need to accomplish this holiday season, put away the phone and take a walk to the nearest gallery. Get the cortisol down, to get your spirits up.

Most importantly, find nourishing places to live and work, places of clarity and beauty and good, healthy fun. Places like SCAD.

Designer. Author. President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) || ||