Living-Learning communities aim to enrich, deepen residential living experience

Students having coffee

Living-Learning Communities offer a chance for students in residence halls to focus on specific topics including social justice and wellness.

On-campus housing offers many opportunities for students to enrich their university experiences with activities that complement their academic lives. But for a number of years, some OSU students have been able to take that a step further, by participating in living-learning communities tailored to specific interests, identities and academic/career goals.

It also offers faculty and staff ways in which they can share time and interests with students in a less formal fashion, and sometimes create an even greater impact. Whether it’s a conversation over dinner or a workshop held in a residence hall living room, there are as many ways for faculty to engage with students as there are types of living-learning communities available.

“It’s an opportunity for faculty and staff to become more involved in student lives and for students to gain enrichment outside of the classroom,” said Ben Medeiros, assistant director for living-learning communities with University Housing and Dining Services.

While several living-learning communities have been well established at OSU, a number of new ones have been coming on line in the last couple of years, with some brand new communities settling in this fall.

Entrepreneurship, international communities well established

Weatherford is one of the most well-known living-learning communities, where students living within the hall are focused on innovation, entrepreneurship and experiential learning. And before the construction of the International Living-Learning Center (ILLC), West Hall was known as the international hall, giving domestic students the opportunity to live alongside students from other countries and cultures. That opportunity now exists in the ILLC as the “Global Village,” a partnership between INTO OSU and the College of Liberal Arts.

Allen Dean, residential experience coordinator for INTO OSU, said the program offers international and domestic students a chance to learn about each other in a structured yet student-guided manner, emphasizing both academic and social benefits.

Building

The International Living-Learning Center at OSU.

“The curriculum in the Global Village is intended to create conversations about cultural identity, values, and difference as well as an opportunity for students to reflect on their experience,” he said. Most first year students will not have had much opportunity for deep reflection on how they define their own culture, so it’s a chance for students to learn about themselves as much as it is to explore the values and beliefs of another group.

There are many activities throughout the year, from themed potlucks to international dating panels to group service learning. Workshops give students the chance to meet with faculty outside of the classroom, and informal conversations with faculty and staff increase student comfort.

“Our hope is that we help increase the accessibility of staff and faculty at OSU,” Dean said, “so the community members feel comfortable talking to their academic advisors, asking staff questions, and taking advantage of their professors’ office hours.”

While pairing domestic and international students together can create its own unique set of challenges, Dean said they don’t send students a list of expectations and community standards before they arrive. Instead they work on connections and conversations in their first few weeks, and let the experiences be guided by the students.

“Each year will have a different core of students, and it’s important that they feel invested in a statement of their values and expectations as a community,” he said.

Intentional communities promote identity, service, recovery

In the last few years, other communities have been intentionally introduced around campus. One of the more recent additions is the Gender Inclusive Living portion of Halsell Hall, where students can live in a community that supports a diversity of gender identity and expression, including for male, female and transgender identifying people. While Halsell is for upper division and transfer students, first-year students who require accommodation based on their gender identity and/or expression can request to be placed in the hall.

Student in dorm room

Residence Halls are more than just places to sleep. They can offer many programs and projects to supplement academic learning.

Bloss Hall has a community focused on civic engagement, and residents have the opportunity to participate in at least two direct service projects per term, as well as smaller projects ranging from writing letters to troops overseas or making dog treats for local humane societies.

In the last year, a collegiate recovery community has been housed in a portion of one of the residence halls on campus (intentionally kept private to protect the privacy of the participants). Medeiros said peer support for those in drug and/or alcohol recovery is key.

“Students in recovery say it’s so hard to find other students who understand,” Medeiros said. The students have access to AA meetings, and can utilize social spaces where they know drugs and alcohol won’t be present.

During the last year, 14 students participated in the recovery community. They took on leadership roles, attended weekly recovery meetings, and even presented at a conference on recovery.

“I think the biggest highlights front this year is the work of our students to support one another, decrease stigma around recovery, and create an environment in which students can be in recovery and have a normal experience,” said Rob Reff, substance abuse prevention coordinator at OSU.

While so far no students have expressed interest in participating in the recovery community for 2014-15, Reff believes when word spreads about the option, more students will seek out the option in coming school years.

New communities coming on line

Two brand new living-learning communities will be opening on campus this fall. An arts and social justice community is being added to the top floor of Wilson Hall, which will focus on conversations around the arts as a means of changing perspective and culture around social justice issues. The Engineering LLC formerly housed in Wilson will be expanding as it moves to Hawley-Buxton next year, including the addition of a Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) floor.

In the arts and social justice community, residents will make art, take courses and attend programs. The community is dedicated to learning about immigrant, Trans, Queer, people of color, women, ability, gender identity, class, indigenous, and religious communities, issues, and social movements through art.

While students don’t necessarily have to have artistic skills, they will be expected to create projects during their stay that tackle difficult social issues through the lens of art. They’ll participate in art workshops, take field trips, take some courses together, and even hold an end-of-the-year art exhibit.

“We believe that students in this living environment will be exposed to critical social issues and be supported by faculty members who are passionate about these topics,” said Charlene Martinez, Project Social Justice program director. “We hope they feel a sense of belonging to the institution, and develop their understanding of their own and other’s cultures/identities in a more intentional fashion.”

Another new community is the Healthy and Well-Being community, which will take up the entirety of McNary Hall starting this fall. McNary was home to Honors College students, but that community has recently relocated to West Hall. A partnership between UHDS, the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, and the College of Science, the community will focus on health issues with an emphasis on science. Medeiros expects a majority of the participants will be public health and science majors and pre-medical students.

Mark Hoffman, associate dean for undergraduate programs with the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said although a majority of students will probably be from the two partner colleges, any students interested in health and well being would be a good fit. For example, an engineering student interested in health-related products, or a forestry student studying the environmental impacts of forests on human health could easily settle into the hall.

“It’s a partnership between our colleges, but it’s open to any student who can connect with the health and wellness emphasis,” he said.

For Hoffman, the residence hall community will facilitate many important connections between students, faculty and staff, and the concepts that they’re learning in the classroom. The community will provide more casual opportunities to connect with faculty, such as small lunches with a select group of students, or movie nights focused on relevant health topics, interspersed with an academic discussion.

Working across units has been an important part of establishing the new community, Hoffman said, and a key element is to view the students as a group rather than affiliating them with their particular major.

“We’re getting away from calling them ‘our’ students and referring to them as students in the community,” he said. “It doesn’t help to have ownership.”

Like the organizers of all the living-learning communities, Hoffman believes faculty involvement is key.

“We are always looking to involve faculty more in the life of the halls,” he said. “If anyone wants to come in and have dinner, we’ll ring them in.”

Enhancing the academic experience

Medeiros said the intention is not to give every residence hall a theme. But living/learning communities provide very valuable opportunities to students who choose to participate, and can enhance their academic as well as social experiences on campus.

“While the intention is not to give every residence hall a living-learning community, the long term direction for University Housing and Dining Services is to continue partnering with academic partners in expanding the community options,” Medeiros said. “We are working with academic partners on two new communities for Fall 2015 – and we are beginning to look at options for Fall 2016.”

As the number of communities increases, so does the opportunity for faculty and staff to interact in a non-classroom capacity with students, or to present their own idea for new groups.

“I would love to meet with anyone on this campus who has an idea about a new LLC,” Medeiros said. “I’ll even offer to pay for their coffee if they’re willing to meet with me!”

~ Theresa Hogue

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