The “college experience,” is an amazing thing. Why else would people pay up to $50,000 a year for close living quarters in tiny rooms and crappy cafeteria food?

But after the experience has come and gone, it’s not the food and dorms people miss; it’s the community. Finding that X factor of what works and applying it to a city is part of how we view our endeavors with Fargo.

One of the biggest ways is creating Fargo’s coworking space, the Prairie Den, with a similar model to a student union at a university. A “student union for a city,” if you will.

On November 15, our own Annie Wood spoke at a conference for education leaders in Minneapolis on this very topic. As the Program Director at the Prairie Den, (or better known as the “Den Master,”) she’s been a huge part of building Fargo’s coworking space by taking inspiration from her years of experience with student unions.

Annie conferenceAnnie worked for seven years within the student unions of North Dakota State University and Minnesota State University-Moorhead, both as a student and as a professional, and the combined experience worked out well for the Prairie Den. Extremely well, in fact – so well that the Prairie Den now has over 100 members and has become a grassroots success for Emerging Prairie (check out this awesome feature on the space in the Fargo Forum.)

Her talk was called, “What student unions can learn from coworking spaces.” What she’s found is that the two models are mutually beneficial to each other.

“We’re iterating on student unions, so now can we encourage them to start iterating themselves,” Annie said.

Here’s a few things she’s learned as a student union expert turned coworking space director.

1. We are the champions, my friend.



One sure fire way to help something succeed is to give it a champion – someone to be an ambassador, an evangelist, a complete fanboy/girl. The same goes for places. Find people to be champions of your student union.

At the Prairie Den, we found our champions by asking people to contribute. We launched a “Co-founder campaign,” where we invited the community to become co-founders through a $50 donation, which also got them a Co-founder T-shirt.

“We called upon our community to contribute to our space,” Annie said. “They then became our champions.”

Takeaway: Who could be a champion for your space?

2. Activate the space.

Prairie Den

No one likes a dull, dead space. Activate the space by doing whatever it takes to get people there, especially in the early stages.

“How many rooms do you have sitting empty right now in your student union?” Annie asked the crowd. Often, it’s a LOT.

Solve this problem by inviting people to check out the space, using it to host meetings and events, and -for coworking spaces – offering liberal amounts of “Free Day passes”.

Pay attention to how people use the space naturally as well, Annie said. If people are re-arranging seats, notice that and start arranging them that way as well. At the Prairie Den, we activate the space by letting people use the space for a variety of things, from hackathons to birthday parties.

“Let people activate the space how they want,” Annie said.

Takeaway 2: In what intentional ways are you activating your space?

3. Fill it with art.

The Misfitted Prairie Den

Support local art. This, the mantra of Fargo’s own Arts Partnership, is not just a cute thing to say or wear on a t-shirt – it’s a very real way to support the artists in your community. A student union or coworking space is a perfect place to put this to work, and simultaneously make your place look amazing.

“Create a sense of place through local artwork,” Annie said. “Do you have a blank wall somewhere? Just take a walk through and notice places where you could infuse the place with art.”

We’ve certainly done this at the Prairie Den, and it’s made a huge difference.

In similar fashion, notice little things you can add to the space to make it creative. Create a library, buy laptop risers, or yoga balls.

“Small changes can help them feel like you’re listening,” Annie said.

Takeaway 3: How are you inviting your students/community to co-create your spaces?

4. Don’t consume, contribute.

CLMJy09WEAEihvD.jpg_largeA coworking space should be viewed as a gift to the community. Likewise, Annie said, “A student union is a gift from one generation of students to another.”

That said, one should encourage a give-before-you-get mentality within and around the space. Create giving opportunities that don’t feel far off, but instead let the giver know they’re directly contributing to making a better space.

For instance with the co-founder campaign, it not only gave the community ownership but also showed that we weren’t just asking for money – we were asking for their belief and support.

“Often students are too far removed from the giving to feel connected,” Annie said. “Giving people the ability to believe in it and feel a part of it makes it more than just a fee tacked on.”

Takeaway: How are you helping students understand their contribution


Recognize the power of showing up. It doesn’t matter if it’s poking your head in to say a quick hello, or acting as a participant in an event at the space. Showing up shows you care.

“Stop by, give people the sense that you believe in what they’re doing,” Annie said.

Takeaway: How do you strategically show up?


Great news. Implementing university models in a city is working. Perhaps the “college experience” doesn’t have to be bound to colleges, after all.


Photos courtesy of Annie Wood and Bri Lee.

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Marisa Jackels