Listening First: Students Behind the Insights — Introducing The Quad Squad

About the author : Victoria Ng

Director of Consumer Insights, Sodexo Campus

Published on : 10/30/23
  • Like many of you, I want to understand the student journey. What considerations influence college or university selection? What helps students most when they encounter obstacles such as financial stress, mental health challenges, or when they are struggling to find their place — where they fit in — on campus? What factors help them persist and succeed, not just making it to graduation, but thriving and finding fulfillment?

    college students working togetherIn leading the Insights team for Sodexo Campus, I’ve learned that there is no single student journey and no one formula for student engagement. Along with our college and university partners, we are focused on understanding and improving individual experiences. With nearly instant digital convenience in every student’s hand, personalization needs to be speedier than it was even a few years ago. Take food for example: students’ top two priorities are convenience and taste — but nutrition and cost are also ranked near the top.

    You may be thinking, “So what?” Is it surprising that students collectively seek delicious food that is nutritious, convenient, and affordable? Perhaps they just want it all. However, when we challenge and validate broader insights with individual and group perceptions, we find gold nuggets in that granularity. For example, sustainability is one way to hone in on student priorities. 

    gen z sustainability statStudents have told us that they seek out colleges and universities that prioritize social responsibility (2022-2023 Sodexo Student Lifestyle Survey). Additionally, 77% of Gen Zers identify environmental sustainability as a core value.1 Looking more closely, we find large subgroups of students committed to part-time or full-time, plant-based eating. In fact, 79% of Gen Z say they eat plant-based meals at least once a week.2 Their reasoning varies from health and nutrition, to religious or cultural norms, to a recognition that plant-based lifestyles reduce carbon emissions. According to Sodexo’s research, more than a third of Gen Z report consuming meat alternatives daily.3 To them, enjoying plant-based cuisine cannot mean sacrificing flavor, variety, or the adventuresome appeal of trying something new.

    The plant-based food on the plate may be the same, but each student’s journey is unique. Convenience, cost, variety, and access are all variables. So how can we smooth the path for sustainability advocates, athletes, artists, interns, vegans, students with food allergies, and students who attend college part-time, or who are first-gen? In other words, how do we appeal to all students?

    It starts with listening, our fuel for innovation. Of course, qualitative data doesn’t fully charge our batteries. But listening steers smarter quantitative research questions, targeted data collection, and validation of best practices. Those are just a few of the reasons I’m excited about our newest initiative: The Quad Squad.

    sodexo the quad squad logo

    The Quad Squad kicked off this semester and is our newest Student Insights Community. Made up of 250 students, this new community includes students at colleges and universities where food and facilities are operated by Sodexo, are self-operated, or are operated by other non-Sodexo partners. We can push questions to the Quad Squad, polls, longer requests for mobile diaries, or simple surveys. Our queries can target a region, a student demographic, or we can query just the students who have tried the new bubble tea pop-up.

    Instant gratification is hard to come by in the research and insights business, so I am very excited about the immediacy of this tool. Student experiences and expectations are always changing, and typical research methods often take weeks or months. (Or longer!) Since The Quad Squad has input available in a matter of hours, we and our campus partners can make better short- and long-term decisions…and I get a reprieve from having to be patient while the campus world is humming along!

    What do students think of our plant-based options? What do students think of the new menus in the dining commons? What are students’ real-time experiences with dining automation? What investments make the most sense for student dining? Do all students feel welcome? What expectations do students have for being able to see and track the impact of their meal selections in real time?

    These are just some of the questions we can and will answer. Sodexo Campus has led with listening for years through the Sodexo Student Lifestyle Survey and through our Student Advisory Panels, Student Culinary Councils, and through interaction with our hundreds of campus interns. Our shared purpose — and our most valuable work — is for students. We are listening to them.

    [1] Sodexo’s What Motivates Gen Z to Go Plant-Based Report
    [2] Food Management Magazine
    [3] Sodexo’s What Motivates Gen Z to Go Plant-Based Report