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Faculty in the Halls
Meeting Students Where They Are
You recruit faculty members to spend time in your residence halls, akin to office hours but in a potentially more comfortable environment. That’s why, in fall 2103, six enterprising faculty members took up position in the main lobbies of three first-year student residence halls, prepared to answer questions that surpassed classroom boundaries. Or, as Jeff Kelly, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, notes, “It’s sort of like the faculty members put up their flags and said, ‘Okay, we’re here.’”
A few years ago, former President Manning asked a group from Student Affairs and the Office of Academic Support to visit Virginia Tech and look at their residential college model, whereby faculty members and their families live in selected residence halls and provide an academic vision for the respective hall. “We left there extremely impressed, and we sought to develop a program that would work at Stevenson,” Kelly says. “The result is our Faculty in the Halls Program.”
Stevenson’s steps in this direction were a sound one; many colleges and universities have developed some type of formal collaboration between faculty and residence life. In the mid-1980s, Alexander Astin, Ph.D., Professor of Higher Education Emeritus at UCLA among other titles, first developed a student development theory based on student involvement. Among his findings: “Students who interact frequently with faculty members are more likely than other students to express satisfaction with all aspects of their institutional experience, including student friendships, variety of courses, intellectual environment, and even the administration of the institution.”
During the 2013-2014 year, six faculty members assigned in teams of two began living in each of the three freshman residence halls: Leeanne Bell McManus, Associate Professor of Business Communications, and Chip Rouse, Chair and Associate Professor Business Communications, in Western Run; Romas Laskauskas, Assistant Professor, Business, and Art Fifer, Assistant Professor, Information Systems in Susquehanna; and Chris Noya, Assistant Professor of Business Communications, and Laurel Moody, Assistant Professor, Nursing, in Patapsco.
In fall 2015, the program expanded to add Kim Tucker, Director, Center for Environmental Stewardship and Assistant Professor of Biology; Joe Matanoski, Associate Professor of Biology; and Christine Moran, Dean of Student Success in the primarily sophomore residence halls of Herring Run and Wakefield.
Claire Moore, former Vice President of Student Affairs, said that the faculty involved have truly committed to the program. For example, at the beginning of the fall, one large meeting is held in each hall to kick off the academic year. “Each building holds about 200 residents, and there’s a competition among the faculty as to who has the largest percentage of attendees.” The program’s evolution, she feels, has been largely organic. “When they’re in the halls, they may have people from other offices—Academic Support, Career Services, Wellness—who are here to talk about what they do and how they can help students. And that’s exactly what we wanted to happen. The two faculty members in each building: they’re our marketers.”
Kelly says that at one point, he told the faculty members that he wanted them to do more academic events. “One of them said, ‘Don’t try to separate the two.’ For example, last spring, Chip and Leeanne got food from Chick-fil-A and took it to the racquetball court and they invited the students for a casual dinner before their hall attended a men’s volleyball game, and they both said they were asked more academic-type questions at that social event. When students are in that environment they’re more likely to ask the type of questions we want them to. That’s when I stopped trying to think of it as academic versus social. The fact is, we’re connecting them to faculty who can be really useful.”
Rouse agrees, noting that she’d hoped that by mentoring the first-year students where they were most comfortable, she’d be able to show them the bridge between their academic life and their residential life. “I have continued in the program because that’s exactly what has happened. Students see the faculty as more human, as funny people, as servers of nachos and ice cream, as someone who will help them in just about any aspect of their campus life. That’s a tremendously positive experience for the students and for us.”
She adds, “I remember well one evening when I was having ‘office hours’ in the residence hall, and one young man brought down a pair of pants that he was going to wear for a presentation the next day. They were about 5 inches too long, and he asked me if I could help him fix them. We got a pair of scissors and I showed him how to hem the pants. Not exactly what I saw myself doing as an academic, but we had a great conversation the entire time.”
No Question is Off-Limits
Bell McManus agrees with Rouse about unexpected questions—many based on where they sit because their residence hall lobby is just off the laundry room. “From talking about doing laundry—‘Can I mix these colors?’—to working with them on scheduling and what courses they want to take, we get a pretty wide range of questions.” She says that because a lot of undecided students ask what they should do, “One activity we held was a mini major fair. We found that a lot didn’t realize we offered a certain major until they saw those options on paper. Then, once they had some idea, we were able to give them advice on who to talk to.”
Laskauskas and Fifer also addressed their undecided students, holding a program called Flip Flop Your Career. “We brought some people from Career Services. Not only are they very good at discussing these types of career interests but they have programs, questionnaires, and surveys that the students can do and then schedule a meeting for further discussions. So we were happy to be able to facilitate that.”
Student interaction can also depend on timing—during midterms, for example, if students see faculty in the hall, they’re more likely to stop. “When they’re frantic they’re coming to us,” Bell McManus jokes. “’My parents said it’s time to pick a major.’ ‘I have a midterm!’”
On Halloween Kim, Joe, and Christine brought candy to their hall for what they called reverse trick or treating, Kelly says. “It was funny, the students were hesitant to open the doors. They said ‘We don’t have candy’ and the faculty said, ‘No, we’re giving you candy!’” Laskauskas believes that one way to the students’ hearts is food. “Every November, we do a turkey Thanksgiving dinner for them and it doesn’t cost them anything. I mean, everybody likes to cook—and eat. Another time, we did a food throw down where I prepared my chili and Art made a wonderful pulled pork. We talked about our food and how we prepared it, and we built a food social. About 100 kids showed up, so we considered that a success.”
Looking at the overall program, he says he appreciates that it is designed to provide another point of contact with students. “When I’m in the classroom, I have my 120 students that I teach, and rarely do I interact with students that are outside my curriculum area. But in the dorm, we’ve got everybody, and I enjoy that.”
Both Bell McManus and Laskauskas were in their respective residence halls on April 27, 2015: the afternoon and evening when the Baltimore protests turned violent.
“We had a television on in the lobby with live coverage,” Laskauskas reflects, “and we had a group of about 30 or 40 students, a very diverse group of students, and the ensuing discussion that happened was fantastic. You knew it wasn’t directed at anybody in the room because the focal point was the television and what was happening. Everybody in the room was extremely comfortable talking about it. It was a very intelligent, very open, very honest discussion.”
For her part, after that evening, Bell McManus sent an email to those involved in the Faculty in the Halls Program:
I wanted to give you an update on today’s faculty in the halls. I was in the dorm tonight with 90 cupcakes and I had the opportunity to talk with students about all of the violence. I turned on the television in the dorm and I just had students come by for over an hour and talk to me about the incident. At one point I had more than 20 students watching the television with me and eating cupcakes.
I also had a prospective student and her mom walk by and tell me what a fabulous job we were doing at Stevenson. She now wants to send her daughter to Stevenson because of programs like Faculty in the Halls. I was so proud to be part of the program tonight!
The presence of faculty in the halls is felt in other ways that matter. “We’re not their professors, we’re not their friends,” Laskauskas explains. “We’re just another Stevenson representative that they see and can get comfortable with, can ask anything. If we sense that students are not doing well emotionally or we’ve had some kids in tears—one girl had just heard that her mother’s best friend had passed away and here she was dealing with that—we can say, ‘Hey, would you like to talk to someone about this? We have people down here who are seasoned counselors and they can help with your grief. We have the resources, all the facilities.’”
Noya believes that a student-focused approach is crucial at a successful institution, which is why she agreed to participate in the program. “Both Laurel and I have had quite a few moments when we have realized the effectiveness of this program. I have had several students talk to me about difficulties in the classroom, social issues, or just homesickness. A few students have mentioned how they look forward to seeing Laurel and I in the hall Thursday evenings and many have commented on our monthly birthday celebrations for students.”
Among the other activities held to interact with their students in Patapsco Hall have been a CPR class, Salsa lessons, debate night, and a tour of Baltimore City this past fall, culminating in dinner in Little Italy. They also have partnered with the other first-year halls in homecoming tailgates and Halloween celebrations. This familiarity through social activities, Noya says, makes the faculty more identifiable.
“We can keep an ear to the ground, quickly identify students having academic or social issues, and help improve student satisfaction,” she comments, adding, “The program helps me in the classroom because I am better able to recognize what interests students and what concerns them. I have come to understand my students better, and have a great respect for their values, work ethic, compassion, and service to the community.”
It can even help turn mini-crises into laughter, Noya says. “I had a student confide in me how upset she was that her mother had redecorated her bedroom—for the family’s cats! Yet after we talked, she was able to see the humor in it.”
According to Kelly, one indirect indicator regarding the success of the program may be seen in the retention rate of first-year residential students to their second year. In 2012, the year before faculty in the halls was started, approximately 75 percent of the first-year residents returned to Stevenson for a second year. In 2013, and again in 2014, the first two years of the program, approximately 81 percent of first-year residents returned for their sophomore year.
Kelly is quick to note, “I am very well aware that many factors lead to gains in student retention and that many, many folks make significant efforts in this regard, but I would certainly like to think that the faculty’s efforts with this program are contributing to some of the gains we are seeing.”
The program is working to provide more concrete evidence of its efficacy. “Anecdotal information has told us that what we are doing does affect the residents positively, but the program needs more formal study,” says Rouse, who, along with Bell McManus, is currently gathering research to see the impact of the program. This research can help the program’s administrators explore the future and make adjustments.
Personally, she says that she has grown from participating in the program. “It has helped me to see, up close and personally, the anxieties, fears, and aspirations of our students. They are often freer to talk with me because they have nothing to lose, so I have learned to be a better listener and try to hone in one what their subtext may be. I think we are making a difference for the students, and I know it’s made a difference in my career.”
Laskauskas has seen much of the same. “I think this group of millennials needs this kind of interaction. Many of us get frustrated when we’re trying to reach out to our students, when we send an email or something, but we’re just not connected, we’re not getting responses. I finally said to one class, ‘How do I communicate with you? How do we connect?’ And one student said, ‘Just the way you’re doing it right now. If I feel like you’re speaking to me as part of this larger group, I’m a little bit disconnected. But if I feel that you’re saying to me, Mary, why don’t you join us at this event, and if you’re saying it to me personally, then I’m paying attention.’”
Part of the reward for Bell McManus has come from participating in the program since its inception. “It’s been an opportunity to really watch them grow. They sometimes end up taking our classes in their sophomore or junior year and you think how far they’ve come from freshman year—from ‘I need help with laundry’ to ‘I’m running for president of SGA. Even seeing them grow in confidence from the beginning to the end of the semester, going from quiet and shy to laughing with a crowd of people. That’s amazing.”
Rouse firmly believes in the strength of the program, now and moving forward. “The more we can connect the students to the life they are making at Stevenson, they more successful they can be. Learning that education is a holistic thing, that it can happen anywhere and that it can include just about anything, helps the students to see that they came to Stevenson for more than just a nice residence hall or a great major.”