Living Learning Communities allow university newcomers to bond with fellow students
For those attending a university for the first time or transferring to a new campus, getting acclimated to the environment can often be the biggest hurdle a new student must clear.
Proximity and access to like-minded individuals who share the same majors or interests could prove beneficial academically and socially.
That’s the theory behind living learning communities, also known as residential learning communities, which have been a growing trend across the country for well over a decade. On the University of North Carolina campuses, the number of living learning communities as well as their variety have also seen significant increases.
Created mostly for freshmen or transfer students, newcomers to a UNC campus can register to live in student housing with specific themes. Some communities are based around academics – such as living with fellow chemistry majors or fine arts students; some are based around the unique challenges facing students from similar backgrounds; and some are built on themes such as leadership, honors studies, athletics or environmental awareness.
East Carolina University Provost Ron Mitchelson said his campus has seen “exponential growth” of the learning communities since it opened its first one in 2009. Now, there are 17 on campus with plans to add even more. Mitchelson notes that placing students among like-minded classmates can have advantages, particularly with first-generation university students, whose parents have no college experience to share with them.
“You are enrolling a group of students who are similar in their pre-conditions in entering the university and letting them support one another to see what this university setting is all about,” he said. “That’s the real advantage. There’s an affinity, a cohesiveness that drives them from the pre-conditions.”
William McCartney, associate vice chancellor of campus living at ECU, said about 20 percent of first-year students – freshmen and transfers – reside in a living learning community, representing more than 800 students. Ultimately, the university hopes to raise the number to 25 percent as more communities are developed.
According to McCartney, the living learning communities have evolved significantly since he first arrived. When ECU started the program, it was simply a group of students from the same academic discipline living together. As the program has grown, the communities now get funding and work with academic departments for coursework and programming.
The results have paid off. The average GPA among living learning community residents (not counting the honors village) is 3.0, compared to about a 2.7 among all ECU freshmen.
At North Carolina State University, some of the engineering village residents said their experience has been so positive that they are already applying to remain living in the community to serve as mentors to next year’s freshman class.
When Matthew Dudley of Chapel Hill was visiting NC State as a prospective student, he learned about the villages and decided to apply to live there.
“They told me about the benefits of the program, about the programming they do,” he said. “Now, I have lots of peers and friends who are in the same classes as me. That really helps with assignments and we get to study together. Socially, we live in these suites that form a community.”
For Anjanay Mahajan, an NC State freshman from Botswana, attending the university was his first trip to America, so the engineering village provided the social framework he needed to acclimate to this country.
“You get a better insight as to what you want to study,” he said. “It’s inspired me to do research. Because I’m an international student, the other students help me frequently. When I was taking English 101, they would read my essays and give me feedback. It made the work so much easier and strengthened my understanding of it.”
The engineering village also provides support for female students who tend to pursue STEM-related fields at lower rates than male students. For freshman engineering students like Julie O’Brien, those students find each other as soon as they move in.
“My entire floor is all women, and we’re all really close,” she said. “Academically, it has helped because we’re all equally motivated, and it’s helped motivate me.”
In addition to the social and academic aspects to the village, O’Brien said it offers excellent programming designed to help students decide what sort of engineering they want to pursue.
“They’ve shown us opportunities for professional development,” she said. “We’ve had an opportunity to have our resumes critiqued, and we were able to take a company tour at Northrop Grumman in Washington, DC. We’re getting a lot of exposure to a lot of different disciplines.”
All three students have applied to become mentors next year.
Beyond academic disciplines, the communities can focus on supporting groups who might be underserved as part of the general community.
For example, NC State’s Black Male Initiative strives to establish a brotherhood and develop leaders among black male students.
Students take part in workshops on resume building and personal branding; take trips to Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities; and travel to the National Black Male Retreat at Ohio State University.
McCartney said the communities are a way to address issues demographic groups traditionally might face on a campus. For example, he said ECU males have struggled academically in grade-point average, dropout rates and graduation rates compared to female counterparts. As a result, ECU is launching a living learning community for male students next year.
UNC Pembroke attracts many non-traditional students – those who work full-time and fit in classes as part-time students.
For this group, the university has designed programming for those students even though they are not living together, said Todd Allen, associate director of New Student Programs at UNCP’s Center for Student Success.
“We’re a heavy commuter campus, so we had to come up with options for those students,” he said. “We started programs in our learning communities that didn’t require the student to live on campus.”
Many of the communities throughout the UNC system have leadership or social awareness components. ECU’s Athletics Learning Community is built around the unique schedules of student-athletes and designed to help its members improve their leadership skills. Classes are designed to focus on leadership development, benefitting those who serve as team captains or serve on the Student Athlete Council.
NC State offers EcoVillage, which caters to students who are interested in sustainability; SAY (Students Advocating for Youth) Village, which brings together students who want to work with children; and Global Village, which brings together people from diverse backgrounds so they can learn about other countries and cultures.
Bethany Meighan, director for student development for the UNC system, said the system allows each UNC campus to determine how best to grow the concept.
“Each campus employs it in different ways,” she said. “They know the themes, the class, the culture. The idea has been around for the last 40 years. We want to promote and support our students. In this system, discussion doesn’t have to end when a 50-minute class is done. It’s a great retention tool, and I think it makes parents feel better about sending their kids to college.”