Rider University creates ‘Zen Den’ to foster student health and wellness

College students often experience an unrelenting amount of pressure and stress from both internal and external influences. Each individual handles it differently; some internalize their feelings, leading to withdrawal and perceived disinterest, while others outwardly express their emotions in a wide range of physical expressions and actions. These pressures and stressors impact a student’s life academically, socially and physiologically.

Rider University sought to create a space that provides a welcome respite to the pressures, stress and tribulations of college life.

This feat, which was already challenging, was further compounded by the effects of the pandemic that impacted all aspects of what had been considered normal everyday life. Specifically, the university’s Student Government Association took the initiative of funding the creation of a space for students with depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism and other mental and emotional health conditions to decompress and unwind.

The idea was spearheaded by Andrew Bernstein, then-SGA president, along with the vice president of student affairs, Leanna Fenneberg, who saw a pressing need for the betterment of the student body’s health. The idea gathered strong support from Mike Reca, vice president of facilities and university operations.

According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 44% of college students report having symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns that impact their ability to complete schoolwork. Other symptoms of depression and anxiety include changes in eating and sleeping habits, losing interest in extracurricular activities, emotional outbursts, feeling overwhelmed, panic attacks, lack of energy and thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Universities and colleges across the country have been analyzing these issues for some time to try to develop effective mitigation efforts to neutralize the negative impact on students. Many institutions create nurturing and supporting physical environments, including indoor and outdoor spaces, that provide mental health-enriching activities and incorporate nature to create calming atmospheres, highlighting wellness as a crucial component of college living.

“At Rider, we have been working hard to promote holistic well-being and destigmatize self-care and other behaviors that promote overall wellness. Our Counseling Center has revamped the model to extend beyond individual intensive therapy to include safe spaces, which are identity-centered, psychoeducational outreach, workshops and other methods of support. In fact, 24% of Rider students are connected or supported in some way by our Counseling Center,” Reca said.

The SGA and Rider University partnered with Spiezle Architectural Group Inc. to create a relaxation lounge. The space, dubbed “The Zen Den,” repurposed an old computer lab on the university’s Lawrenceville campus that was located in the Bart Luedeke Center. The BLC was an ideal location for this initiative, as it is located in the heart of the campus and is home to a variety of importance university operations as well as productions and events. Departments such as student affairs and the Office of Equity and Inclusion neighbor the new space. The Zen Den’s core purpose is to help revive and rejuvenate students in a space that embodies well-being and mental health.

There are various ways to create a space that embodies wellness and offers a safe place for students to reset themselves. Drawing upon Spiezle’s long history of design success and the deep understanding of the university mission from a two-decade-long partnership, Spiezle was ready to lend a hand. For years, Spiezle has been incorporating wellness elements and features into its planning and design projects, long before the practice became commonplace in the industry. Combining past success and experience with emerging research and trends is a philosophical pillar of Spiezle’s diverse portfolio of impactful projects.

Spiezle worked with the Student Government Association, student affairs and facilities and university operations to establish focus groups to gather input from all parties and create a design philosophy that accentuated the space while embodying the university’s wellness goals. The space ultimately established distinct zones for different aspects of wellness, providing flexibility and adaptability for student needs. The design phase took place between February 2022 to May 2022, with construction starting in June 2022 and concluding in September 2022.

“This was a great collaborative process — engaging students and content experts from the beginning in co-defining goals for the space; soliciting student voices and feedback; and actively including relevant campus partners — all leading to a positive outcome. Spiezle really listened to the goals and student needs, reviewed points of inspiration with us, and presented us with cost-conscious options that would meet our needs. It’s truly rewarding to see the space being used now,” Reca said.

Spiezle used a wide variety of design elements to create a calming and relaxing environment to appeal to the students’ needs. The various types of furniture allow the room to be organized into different spaces and provide different ways to interact within the environment. Beanbag chairs, soft lounge seating and a built-in alcove lounge seat help create a comforting and relaxing atmosphere, while hanging chairs provide a soothing sensory experience through movement. Besides furniture, Spiezle added other calming sensory features, including hexagon-shaped touch lights and finishes that emulate the natural environment through color, texture and pattern.

Connectivity to nature has been shown to decrease anxiety and increase attention and cognitive function. Therefore, the natural finishes in the space were used to synthesize human’s innate connection to nature. Spiezle also brought the outside in with a graphic mural of a sprawling sunlit forest that extends an entire wall’s length and height to help effuse a peaceful environment and provide a connection to nature in a space with no windows. Additionally, given the space’s functionality as a reprieve from overstimulation, it doubles as an area that supports neurodivergent students or students who have difficulty with emotional regulation. All of these aspects were crucial to the project’s success and reinforced the Rider University’s initiative to provide more wellness spaces on campus.

“Spiezle’s exceptional work designing and creating this space exemplifies the need for an intentional place to quiet one’s mind and spirit to counter the busyness of the day and the external environment,” Fenneberg said. “We didn’t want this to be a study space; we wanted it to be a place to breathe and rejuvenate so students can return to their schoolwork feeling refreshed and restored.”

The Zen Den is only one piece of Rider University’s broader and more significant effort in supporting student mental health and well-being. The university is entering its final year of a four-year commitment with the Jed Foundation, a nationwide initiative that guides schools on effectively supporting student mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention efforts. Rider’s Counseling Center also recently established identity-centered support groups in addition to its therapy offerings to further help students in need and continue the university’s wellness initiative. Additionally, the university has a Student Health Center, a Family Fitness Center and recreational programs designed and implemented to assist students with wellness and health.

The positive impact on students that the various wellness efforts at Rider University have had are significant. Through projects like the Zen Den and others, students will be able to better care for their personal well-being and come to classes and meetings more refreshed and ready to be successful. Since its opening, the feedback regarding the new space has been incredibly positive.

“College counseling centers will be unable to meet the increasing demand for mental health services through individual therapy alone — but we can create a campus ethos that talks about and supports students and their needs across campus,” Fenneberg said.

By combining all these initiatives, students have multiple ways to better care for their personal well-being. The creation of a Zen Den serves as a potential model for other schools to use in the development of spaces that better serve the needs of the student community. When creating spaces that benefit the mental and physical health of students, everyone wins.

Article submitted by John F. Wright AIA, LEED AP BD+C and Jill DiClementi , ASID NCIDQ.