According to urban dictionary and urban legend alike, Calvin University is not fun. We have top-notch professors, an award-winning lecture series and a student dance showcase that packs out our 1,100-seat auditorium. But we’re not always proud of it and rarely do things we’re not expected to.
We also have the facilities expected of top institutions: an Olympic-sized pool, a rock wall, labs for researching things that haven’t been studied before, monitors outside of classrooms that show when they’re in use, even pianos in most buildings (often multiple of them). Though these often translate into an overall good college experience, Calvin wasn’t designed to engineer unusually memorable experiences.
According to Scientific American, the way our spaces are arranged can impact how we feel and act in them.
An art history class taught me that cathedrals were tall and pointed to direct attention heavenward and make churchgoers feel small. A psychology class taught me that cities intentionally make spaces uncomfortable with spikes or dividers on surfaces to discourage people without housing from sleeping on them. I also learned that people are more likely to litter in places where they see trash on the ground.
Chip and Dan Heath’s 2017 book The Power of Moments argues that the experiences we have in spaces are more significant than the aesthetic value of the spaces themselves. When we can engineer a physical space to make people’s lives a little bit more fun and unexpected, that’s where the magic happens.
Rather than the Four Seasons Resort nestled at the pinnacle of luxury and cost, one of the highest-rated hotels in Los Angeles is the Magic Castle Hotel, a converted condo complex with mostly bare walls but excellent customer service. It offers free magic shows during breakfast, free laundry, free snacks and the popsicle hotline: a phone by the pool where guests can order a popsicle to be delivered, for free, on a silver platter moments later.
The Magic Castle may not be as manicured as the Four Seasons, but looking back on it, those unexpected moments brought people more joy than high thread-count sheets or chandeliers with thousands of crystals.
According to the Heath brothers, you’ll remember a mediocre day with a few fantastic and a few unpleasant moments more fondly than you would a consistently good day with no particularly high or low moments. Our memory is not a perfect average of all of the good and bad things: it’s more like a sum of the extreme ones. Despite this, the hospitality industry focuses on mitigating as many unpleasant moments as possible, rather than making a few of them as perfect as they can.
So, when I found myself as student body president of Calvin University at the beginning of the pandemic, I was out to create those unexpected peak moments for students.
You don’t expect to find swings in the library in the same way that you don’t expect to receive an invitation to scream on the lawn for ten minutes straight or for a group of students to run into a classroom singing, blasting music and doing cartwheels in the middle of a lecture. That’s why we chose to do all of those things.
One grey November afternoon, I sat in the library with a first-year student from Amsterdam who had big ideas and the idealism that he could make them happen, the latter I was losing after being told “no” one too many times. He told me about playful architecture back home in The Netherlands. We complained about the lack of play built into our own campus for about five minutes before dreaming up and sketching out swings in the library, rainbow crosswalks, murals on the sides of buildings and in the underground tunnels connecting academic buildings. By March, the swings had been installed and the tunnel murals were underway.
Then, about 12 weeks into the semester when spring break was canceled, graduation was moved, student organizations were cut, professors were laid off, majors were eliminated, students were upset and I wasn’t able to fix any of it, I just wanted to scream out loud for a good ten minutes.
Suddenly one afternoon, the idea came to me. I created a graphic advertising Calvin University’s first ten-minute primal scream on the lawn. Fifteen moments before the event, I was so excited when I saw that three girls I didn’t even know drove back to campus to scream with me. At 10:00 p.m. that night, my recorder and I were joined by at least five portable speakers, multiple pots and pans borrowed from dorm kitchens, one megaphone and nearly 100 masked but screaming students. Those were the best ten minutes of my presidency.
Due to the pandemic, people weren’t getting coffee with their professors and we found ourselves with about 300 extra Peet’s Coffee gift cards by the end of the year. Someone on my Student Senate team suggested ambushing classes and giving them out to students who came to class, as attendance was severely down near the end of the spring semester.
So, joined by our college chaplain, we donned wigs and dress-up clothes we found in the basement after a quick spray of Lysol to kill any viruses or small insects living inside. We ran into classrooms mid-lecture singing along to music blasting on a portable speaker to give away every single gift card. Once, we sang, “thanks for coming to class” to the tune of the birthday song. As someone with little regard for social norms and a gift for screaming and cartwheels, I was doing what I was made to do.
I have since graduated from Calvin University and despite my initial grumblings, I have had some of the most fun as well as formative years of my life. Through Student Senate, listening to my own frustrations or following the lead of idealistic young people, we’ve been able to make it a little more unexpected for ourselves, and, hopefully, those who will come after. I hope they’ll have as much humility to be changed by the institution as they do courage to change it.