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Residential Learning Communities Make a Difference

Residential Learning Communities Make a Difference
Michael Friedman, Ph.D. (left), professor of English, and David Polhemus ’20, a student in Friedman’s first-year seminar, connect in and out of the classroom thanks to the Celebrate the Arts Living Learning Community. In class, they talked about the Midland Revolt and Occupy Wall Street and thought deeply about Jesuit values. In the student residence hall, Dr. Friedman held a dinner to teach the students about social injustice.

Students in Residential Learning Communities find support in one another, reinforcing the University’s overall sense of community.

In August 2015, Nicholas Capobianco ’19 began his first year at Scranton. That first night in college, he and others from his Residential Learning Community (RLC) gathered for what they called a “family dinner.” They were not yet friends, but on their housing applications they had chosen to live in a community based on a common interest — in this case, their desire to “go forth and set the world on fire.” Officially, the FIRE RLC exists to help students “develop leadership potential, focus on academic success and achieve personal excellence.

“We immediately felt a sense of togetherness,” said Capobianco. “You might chalk it up to not wanting to eat alone. But I think it was because we had planned to engage in the college experience together. And that’s what we did.”

The Office of Residence Life offers five optional Residential Learning Communities for first-year students: Celebrate the Arts, Cura Personalis, FIRE, “Helping Professions” in the Jesuit Context, and Wellness. RLCs are classified as either Living Learning Communities (LLCs) or Themed Communities (TCs); all current first-year RLCs are LLCs, which have a linked course component, while upper class RLCs, offered to sophomores, juniors, and seniors, are TCs.

“So much of what makes Nick’s experience, and those like him, so successful is that they are living with others who are interested in connecting and learning how to have seamless learning environments,” said Maria Marinucci, assistant director for residence education. “I think that’s what makes them so engaged. If they can feel that this is a special opportunity, that brings with it a real investment.”

The program has grown, said Anitra McShea, Ph.D., vice provost for Student Formation & Campus Life, so much so that all students entering each of the three colleges now have an option to enter one of these communities.

“Through the communities, they can explore possible passions and connect those passions with their vocational choice,” said Dr. McShea. “The program really reinforces our strategic plan: These students are engaged and integrated, and there is a global component, too, should they choose it.”

In November 2015, Capobianco and other members of his LLC sat in their common area watching news of the terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Baghdad, which occurred over one weekend. “We were speechless,” he said. “But, then we moved past speechless. We talked about what it meant, why it happened and asked ourselves, ‘Where do we go from here?’”

Just a couple months into college, Capobianco felt comfortable enough to reach out to faculty and staff to take action, planning a prayer walk and vigil for the victims of the attacks.

“He reached out to his RLC faculty member and me,” said Marinucci. “Together with other campus partners, the FIRE community made something happen. They brought the community together. It was pretty powerful to see.”

vigilEvents, like the one Capobianco helped orchestrate, are driven by students; however, there is support and guidance from University faculty and staff. Students also have the opportunity to be matched with a sophomore mentor who participated in the LLC community as a first-year student, and likely has continued the experience as a sophomore.

In this case, said Capobianco, everyone just came together.

“In a short period of time we had a plan, a script,” he said. “It happened so quickly, which I think speaks not only to the LLCs, but to the Scranton community at large. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I wasn’t surrounded with people with such empathy.”

First-year Experience

“Residential Learning Communities, which have grown tremendously over the years, benefit both students and faculty. They reinforce the sense of community that is already present at Scranton.” said University President Kevin P. Quinn, S.J., who has made RLCs a priority since he joined the University in 2011.

The current iteration of these communities, which began in 2005, was built on the University’s Jesuit mission and creating a positive first-year experience.

“It all began with one student,” said Mary Anne Foley, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and religious studies, one of the first two professors who taught a seminar linked to the LLCs. “It was this student’s idea that there be a residential program around the Ignatian ideal of ‘care for the whole person.’”

That student was Sarah Oles ’06, a resident assistant, who was passionate about working with first-year students. She wanted to help provide an experience that enabled the first-year students not only to understand the University’s mission, but also to live it.

“I wanted to offer something that truly embodied Scranton’s mission and the benefits of living in a community,” she said.

Before Oles graduated, she and her co-RAs, Bridget Lally ’06 and Adam Rosinski, S.J., ’07, had set up the Cura Personalis community, organizing it into areas (now, pillars) of faith, service and justice. Students who applied to live in the community decided on their “focus” at the start. Eventually, smaller communities formed within the larger one.

“We hoped that mission would be integrated into [the first-year students’] everyday lives, and something they’d want to continue to deepen and further for the rest of their time at Scranton, and beyond,” said Rosinski, who is currently in Jesuit formation.

A little less than 20 years prior, Gavigan College opened as a “residential college.” It was a place where students could live and learn in one space. Faculty members were encouraged to take part. A faculty coordinator for Gavigan College was Jean Harris, Ph.D., a professor in the political science department, who currently leads the student-faculty teaching mentorship program.

“One of the biggest benefits, I think, was that faculty and students had the opportunity to see each other in a different venue,” she said. “Each group was able to see more of the whole person in different directions.”

Although Gavigan College no longer exists, the current communities were built on what Dr. Harris described as one of Gavigan’s biggest benefits — care for the whole person.

Nailah Harvey ’18, was – last year – a sophomore in the TC of Cura Personalis when she organized the first event in solidarity with Syrian refugees on campus. She is now a coordinating member of the University’s In Solidarity with Syria advocacy effort. “CP aligned with everything I believed in,” said Nailah Harvey ’18. “It also surrounded me with like-minded individuals who were passionate. Ideas were fostered and brought to life.”

“CP aligned with everything I believed in,” said Nailah Harvey ’18. “It also surrounded me with like-minded individuals who were passionate. Ideas were fostered and brought to life.”

The Academic Component

The residential communities have multiplied since 2005, but there was not a course component for first-year students for several years. defining-rlc

“I’m a big believer in Living Learning Communities,” said Brian Conniff, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who proposed adding the academic component to the communities soon after he arrived at Scranton in 2010. “It’s a way of bringing the college experience down to a scale that first-year students feel connected, have a support system and help them engage in the life of the University in a very intimate way, which is very important to their success.”

The data back up this statement. The largest relevant study to date is the National Study on Living Learning Programs (NSLLP), which began in 2001 and was completed in 2007 (Brower & Inkelas, 2010). Results confirmed and added to previous research that found students who lived in LLCs “applied more critical-thinking skills and took advantage of opportunities to apply knowledge to new settings, such as applying what they learned in one class to their work in another class and articulated a smoother transition to college, both academically and socially.”

Dr. Conniff said he sees the benefits of the program.

“Students show up more engaged in the classroom and you can get a lot of out of them,” said Dr. Conniff. “They’re ready to talk to each other; to talk to the faculty member. It really does make a difference.”

David Polhemus, a first-year student in the Celebrate the Arts LLC, agreed.

“Being a part of a living-learning community meant that from the onset of college life, we were already surrounded by others with similar likes and interests . . . allowing everyone to focus less energy on fretting about acceptance, and more energy on acclimating to the other demands of college life.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., taught Polhemus’ first-year seminar, which is associated with the Celebrate the Arts LLC. The seminar focused on one Shakespeare play, Coriolanus. During the fall 2016 semester, students memorized and acted out lines from the play, watched two film versions together and read critiques. They talked about the Midland Revolt and Occupy Wall Street and thought deeply about Jesuit values.

It is a challenging course, admitted Dr. Friedman, but what struck him about the students was how comfortable they were with one another from the start, and their relationships continue to deepen.

“They weren’t reticent about speaking up even in the beginning of the year,” he said. “And now? It’s like they’ve become a little family.”

Connecting to Future Family

The “family” extends beyond just student relationships. Faculty members act as mentors as well, even to those who choose not to take the associated first-year seminar, ensuring that students learn to make connections both in and out of the classroom.

Debra A. Pellegrino, Ed.D., dean of the Panuska College of Professional Studies, devotes time to promoting literacy in young children. Since she began her tenure at Scranton about a decade ago, she has organized a collection of books for children in need. The books are blessed during a ceremony and then sent to various schools and nonprofits.

At the start of the fall 2016 semester, Dean Pellegrino challenged students in the “Helping Professions” firstyear seminar and LLC to reach out to doctors, faith-based institutions, nurses and health care organizations for the collection.

In December, the students stood by beaming with pride as the books were blessed. They had organized the collection and ended up with more than 4,000 books for needy children.

“So much learning happens outside of the classroom. Everyone has a different journey or a different lens,” said Dean Pellegrino. “I wanted to go into the residence halls to understand where students were coming from. Students in my seminar come from different places and have chosen all different majors: teacher education, biology, DPT, OT, exercise science, neuroscience. One is even undecided.”

The diverse range of majors is exactly why Karlie Ashcroft ’20 is grateful to live in the “Helping Professions” LLC.

“Being in the Living Learning Community is a good way to meet people outside of your program,” she said. “It opens doors to building relationships with people, people you might be working with in the future.

Watch footage from Capobianco's prayer vigil, here.

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