Design for America teaches college students to use design for social good, and Sodexo is a quality of life company that goes beyond food service by innovating to improve the entire university experience. According to a 2011 Study by the Pell Institute, 30% of college freshmen drop out after their first year, and only 11% of low-income, first-generation students complete their degree within 6 years. Together, DFA and Sodexo joined forces this fall on a national project challenge to ask: How can we improve preparedness and resilience in college students?

Five teams from Michigan State, University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins|MICA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Rice University dove into this complex topic by reflecting on their personal experiences and getting to know students from all walks of life on their campuses. “Each team took the time to ask: what does it mean to be a student? We were exploring a space that we’re familiar with, but they didn’t just focus on their own experiences. Everyone has different nuanced challenges during college” shared Ken Hunter, DFA Fellow who facilitated the project and design process with each team.

Each group worked with a coach from Sodexo’s innovation team and shared learnings, insights, ideas, and prototypes throughout the process, while gaining expert feedback and guidance. Teams then presented projects at a final expo at Sodexo’s Headquarters to get more feedback and further develop their concepts.

Concepts ranged from preparing high school students early for college, to assisting students in goal-setting, to addressing and preventing loneliness.

86% of college students study alone in their dorms, according to the Sodexo International Student Lifestyle Survey. “After surveying 61 students at 9 universities, we learned loneliness is one of the biggest things students suffer from” shared Kat Ward of DFA Johns Hopkins|MICA. Her team is developing an interactive room and a gift bag that helps first year college students foster a sense of belonging during critical moments.

DFA Michigan State’s Katie Schlafhauser and showcases prototypes of a goal-setting exercise to help students pursue their interests and passions. 

“The goal of our project is to create a tool for the students that don’t know what they’re passionate about yet. We think that’s where a lot of the gap is – students not fully understanding the resources that are out there,” said Katie Schlafhauser of DFA Michigan State.

Sodexo’s Aaron Wagner checking out handouts of MSU’s prototype.

“This has played such a big role in my life this semester, and the problem space hits so close to home, especially as a Learning Assistant trying to help first-year students. With the guidance from DFA National and Sodexo, I was learned and applied the design process in a structured way to a topic that I care about” shared Anna Wong of DFA Rensselaer.

Mayu Tobin-Miyaji and Claire Peng share how DFA Rice connects Breakthrough Houston participants to college students who also participated in the program.

With plans to work with the RPI Dean of First Year Experience to pilot their project next term, DFA Rensselaer ensures that students create good habits during their first year of college with the help of a kit called “Habit Tools,” which they’ve filled with items like a goal map, semester calendar, hourly schedule, and habit tracker.

DFA Rice’s project empowers high school students to navigate the path to and beyond college through an online alumni mentorship platform. The website connects current Breakthrough Houston students with Breakthrough alumni to receive advice on how to best prepare for college academically, financially, and socially. By 2023, they hope to engage all Breakthrough chapters and implement a similar program in their high school curriculums.

“There are a lot of good takeaways for us from this experience; it was really interesting to see that while we had five different teams and five different approaches, we still had that same common theme – personal connection,” said Jon Preciado, DFA MSU’s coach and Sodexo Senior Manager of Quality of Life Research.
Sodexo’s goal is to be a leader in supporting student engagement and improving the quality of life for the entire university community. By focusing on Quality of Life services, they enhance the overall experience of a student’s educational journey and academic success.

“A lot of what we think about here at Sodexo is how we understand our end users more. We have hundreds of services and we tend to go right to “the what.” This process really nailed down the importance of “the why,” shared Debra Daily, Sodexo VP of Global Quality of Life Transformation.

Panelists include: Kevin Rettle – Vice President, Global Offer Development – Universities, Kay Martin – Senior Vice President – Universities West, Gerri Mason-Hall – Senior Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer,  Sandrine Church – Director of Strategic Planning, Stacy Bowman-Hade – Senior Director, Audience Engagement, Global Offer Development – Universities, and Kenneth Johnson – Assistant General Counsel.

Panelists Stacy Bowman-Hade and Kenneth Johnson.

Following the project presentations, DFAers heard from a panel of Sodexo employees Geri Mason-Hall, Kevin Rettle, Kay Martin, Kenneth Johnson, Sandrine Church, and Stacy Bowman-Hade, who shared career stories, achievements, and the inclusive culture they cultivate at Sodexo. Students then got an inside look at Sodexo through a tour of the facilities, and finished off the day with a global cafe exercise to explore how the DFA projects and insights can apply to real Sodexo initiatives.

Kevin Rettle, VP Global Offer Development at Sodexo works with Anna Glen (DFA U Cincinnati) and Anna Wong (DFA Rensselaer) to analyze each team’s project.

In addition to working with students on this meaningful challenge, this year Sodexo invited two DFAers showcase DFA’s work at their annual conference in London, collaborated with DFA for a Chicago Design Week alumni event, and sponsored and participated in Leadership Studio 2017.


Each year, DFA facilitates national programs with sponsoring companies. If you are interested in participating or sponsoring next year, let us know!