I’m on a special assignment this semester, and so I am doing a couple of things at my university that I wouldn’t ordinarily do. One is thinking strategically about what is distinctive about UMW. Call it “The Mary Washington Experience.” The other is lurking in our new Information and Technology Convergence Center, the ITCC. Because I’m hiding out here, I come and go pretty quietly, not talking to people most days. But there’s something I’ve noticed: the students are EVERYWHERE. Not so many at 8 am when I arrive, sure, but they’re here. More arrive all day long; today — mid-afternoon, mid-semester – the place was packed. They are here at five when I leave. They are here for more studying and socializing when I come in on weekends. I know the center’s head, Special Assistant for Teaching, Technology and Innovation Jeffrey McClurken, is less than thrilled when the student set their open cups of coffee on the new furniture, but it is a sign they’ve moved in and they made it their space.

Writing, speaking, and digital knowledge centers provide formal spaces for students to receive peer tutoring. But there are a variety of semi-private and public spaces for students to work, learn, teach and collaborate. Some play video games. Some just are there to hang or veg out. Some meet in groups of two or three to drink coffee and chat. Student organizations meet. But most of them are collaborating on papers or projects, practicing group presentations, studying for an exam, going over the material they’ve been learning,. And my favorite part: They’re TEACHING each other. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

Because, not only is it collaborative, interdisciplinary, and apparently great fun, it’s also VISIBLE.

Of course, this is not the first time students studied in groups or worked on projects together, or even taught each other. What’s new is that it’s in the open. Students leave their outlines, equations, notes, and musings on the white boards in the conference rooms and on the stand up opaque glass boards that are provided, with dry erase markers, for them to work on and move around in the open spaces. The first thing I love is that no one is embarrassed to be seen studying or working hard. The second thing I love is that it’s clearly not just the nerds or the tech heads who are reveling in this space. Because we can see them, it’s obvious that the students who come together are from many different parts of our university.

Community, collaborative, fun, exploratory and open: There could be no better advertisement for our university right now. It would make for a great photo op – except, it’s all real and spontaneous – nothing was staged, nobody had to prompt them to do this, it’s just emergent student culture.

Call it “The Mary Washington Experience.”