12 Ways for Urban Institutions to Engage Students on Campus and Beyond

To engage students on urban campuses, you have to think smart.

With their promises of attractions, vices, and adventure, cities can easily draw students’ attention away from your campus. But city life can be a culturally rich environment, full of wonderful opportunities to develop the students you work with

Here are twelve tips for student engagement on urban campuses and how to work with your city, instead of against it.

12 Tips

1. Connect on the go

Utilizing the elaborate transportation systems and bustling walkways on urban campuses is great way to connect with students. 

Observe which students regularly take the same bus route as you. Station yourself in a busy spot for the ten minutes you have to spare between meetings and set up a refueling station with energy bars and bottled water. 

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When I worked at Rutgers University, I got to know a campus bus driver who served as a modern-day version of Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, in that he became legendary for forging positive connection with strangers and uplifting them with inspirational quotes and stories of shared experiences. Students recognized him publically for his positive impact on the student experience and often selected him to serve as a speaker at campus leadership conferences.

Practicing everyday kindness in these fast-paced, mundane travel routes makes a difference to our students. Make eye contact. Disengage from the anticipated work of your next destination and strike up conversations. 

2. Bolster confidence

If you can’t regularly make it onto the travel routes, you should instead regularly acknowledge how students who navigate the city’s busyness are strengthening their self-efficacy. 

It’s easy for students to see the fast-paced masses between class sessions as overwhelming. First-year students, in particular, often struggle to adapt to traversing an urban campus. 

Remind students that learning to navigate their surroundings helps to channel high productivity throughout the day, as well as foster self-confidence and resilience. You can provide them with resources, such as mnemonic devices for common subway routes, wallet-sized travel cheat sheets, and tips on best practices.

You should also challenge students to find a stride that works for them. Then, compliment them on their efforts!

3. Connect classroom to concrete

Use the city to energize your students’ academic interests. Urban campuses and their local communities probably have societal issues and environmental concerns that students can engage with, research, and make part of their academic experiences. 

Take note of local issues related to pollution and recycling, homelessness, transportation, community housing, recreational spaces, and more. Connect these issues to the academic and leadership passions of your students and highlight the city as a resource.

In Atlanta, Georgia Tech alumnus Ryan Gravel used his master’s thesis to reshape a part of the city. The Beltline – an infrastructure project focusing on the economy, health, and transit – is an example of how a student’s vision for a city’s growth created jobs and fostered community

4. Tailor your prizes

If your budgets and policies allow, consider offering metro cards, tickets to urban attractions, and travel thermoses as prizes for participation in student programs. This will promote urban exploration and allow students to access parts of the city that they might not be able to afford otherwise. 

5. Integrate civic engagement

Many Greek-letter organization members will need to fulfill service hours. To help, you could build connections with sites in the city that could use regular volunteers — especially if they are willing to to talk with your students about the impact of service or to promote future volunteerism

I have often taken students to an animal shelter that’s within walking distance of my campus and to a non-profit organization that serves homeless LGBTQ+ youth. The visits have even inspired students to continue volunteering on their own.

6. Encourage city symbiosis

Chances are, as you travel around the streets or enter shops surrounding your urban campus, you might see visual representations of institutional pride, such as banners, sweatshirts, stickers, and signs – all supporting your school, even if there is no formal partnership. 

Although a city might showcase its support of an institution, that alone might not encourage students to reciprocate. So while their investment in the city as a good citizen might not happen organically, the impact might be recognized with the perfect storm.

Enter Hurricane Sandy. 

In 2012, Sandy wiped out power throughout New Jersey, displacing citizens from their homes and making it difficult for first responders, police, and volunteers to meet, eat, and plan. Rutgers University opened its residence halls and dining halls to assist essential personnel and displaced people from the neighborhood.

Students, not having classes or electricity to distract them, aided the campus efforts by engaging with the displaced folx in their halls and serving meals in the dining areas.

Fostering connections between students and their extended city community will help to solidify how students engage in city projects, local elections, small business ventures, and even natural disaster recovery. 

Find ways to regularly link students to ways in which they can be responsible, positive citizens in their city. 

7. Tune into the local news 

Staying abreast of traffic patterns, construction projects that are cutting off street access, and reported crimes will help in planning off-campus programs.

Consider routes that become obstructed or closed off when working with ADA access for student travel. My students have always appreciated updates I’ve provided on alternate routes to take. Be sure to also take any mobility issues participants might have into account. 

8. Get out there

Go even further than turning on the radio. 

If there is a location you plan to frequently visit off campus, travel the route in person. Get a feel for what the journey feels like during different times of the day and pay attention to obstacles that obstruct wheelchair paths, including cracked pavements and busy intersections with swift-changing streetlights. 

9. Help them dress for success

As your students begin to hit their strides in a big city, they may network and access opportunities that require them to look sharp. While I find it important to encourage students to combat feeling a need to “class up”, offering resources to help them succeed is just as necessary. 

My institution offers a free Campus Closet, through which students can borrow suits and other formal apparel. Students mostly use the closest for job interviews, class presentations, and career fairs. 

When I become aware that a student might not have a stable or sufficient financial income, I make sure to pitch this resource and have pictures ready of student proudly modeling the fashion. 

10. Make your retreats novel

Urban campuses offer students access to exciting timely opportunities. This can allow for cohorts of students to have programmatic experiences that are more memorable. 

Try seeking out traveling art shows, pop-up shops, festivals, and independent movie screenings to create a tailored collegiate experience. Further, market these events by highlighting that they’re exclusive or one-time-only. 

I’ve found that students’ FOMO kicks in and drives them to engage in the opportunity.

11. Leverage sustainability

Show your students that you can rise above the expected fast pace and smog of city life. Some of the things I have done with my community include petitioning for more campus bike racks, planting community gardens around my residence halls, and creating mindfulness and meditation spaces. 

Students can advocate for these initiatives through their residence hall councils or by passing bills for continuous improvements through their student government representatives.

Your community can also commit to a composting campaign by acquiring specialized waste bins and educational materials and partnering with organizations that specialize in turning waste to soil. 

12. Sanction intentionally

When dealing with judicial and student conduct matters, consider utilizing community service educational sanctions. Find local sites that would be healthy and meaningful places for students to volunteer with and make sure the work is appropriate for their violation. 

It is also important to approach this work through a social justice lens. Refrain from assigning service work as part of a sanction unless you can assure access to the location. If necessary, arrange for vehicles from campus services departments to take students to a service site or provide city transportation cards.

How have you engaged students on your urban campuses? Share your stories with us at @themoderncampus. 


Benito Nieves

About the author: Benito Nieves (he/his) is a New Jersey native and Senior Associate Director of SOAR at Virginia Tech. He collects novelty dice and flips a coin to determine if it's a coffee or tea day. Learn how we can help get your students involved.