Live and Learn

Housing Initiatives Improve Student Outlook

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue.

With the opening of Dauphin Hall in Fall 2010, Pennsylvania College of Technology houses more than 1,700 students on campus. Among them are 1,083 first-year students, most living away from home for the first time, encountering new roommates, new class schedules and demands, and the weight of new responsibilities.

Students gather in commons areas in Dauphin Hall, an ideal place to socialize and provide both educational and social sessions for residents. Photo by Whitnie-rae Mays.The newness of the experience is much as it was for college freshmen 50 years ago, except that utilitarian, two-bunk rooms and a communal bathroom at the end of the hall have been replaced on modern campuses with apartment-style housing.

Such was the choice at Penn College when it began offering on-campus housing in 1997. The housing is popular, and students appreciate the amenities: Each apartment has its own bathroom, kitchenette and living room.

"The goal is to ... give them a sense of community and belonging."

But the self-sufficiency of apartment-style living minimizes the community-building aspect that came naturally in the “dormitories” of old.

Since Dauphin Hall is designed with “suite-style” housing, it offers a communal aspect that makes it a logical place to house first-year students, who have more need for a guiding and supportive hand than many of their upperclassman counterparts. The four-floor hall is laid out in pods of three to seven bedrooms sharing a bathroom. Several pods share a study room and large open commons area with a community kitchen, large-screen television, couches and armchairs. The commons provides an ideal place to offer programs for the students.

With six residence halls now near one another on the west end of campus and a new built-in social hub in The Capitol Eatery, a dining hall inside Dauphin Hall, the college designated Dauphin and neighboring Clinton, Delaware, Juniata, Lancaster and York halls as a gated community for first-year students called Rose Street Commons. Upperclassmen are housed on the eastern side of campus in Campus View Apartments and The Village at Penn College.

14 Tips for Academic Success

Marie G. Smith, assistant professor of dental hygiene, shares these tips with students in the School of Health Sciences learning community:

  1. Show up for class, and show up on time.
  2. Sit up front. This will help you pay attention.
  3. No cell phone activity: It raises suspicion.
  4. Speak up. The stand-out student asks and answers questions – and takes notes.
  5. If you don't understand something, ask right away. Troubleshoot any problems while they are still small.
  6. Get to know you professor; introduce yourself.
  7. If you must miss a class, get in touch with your professor and get missed assignments. Let him or her know you care and want to stay on top of things.
  8. Be respectful of everyone in your class. Manners and a professional demeanor make a difference.
  9. Believe and read your syllabus; it is a contract, of sorts.
  10. Get enough rest. It is proven that memory and recall work best with enough sleep.
  11. All-nighters are not a good idea. They are more social activities or rights-of-passage than a smart move academically.
  12. Carry a book with you always. You never know when you can fit in that 10-minute power study.
  13. Remember you are not alone. You have resources. Find a study buddy. Use the library if you need a place outside your room.
  14. If you have a bad day, remember we all have them. The sun will come out tomorrow.

Separating the groups resulted in higher levels of satisfaction, record requests by returning students to stay on campus a second year and significantly fewer behavioral and judicial situations campuswide.

“I can count on two hands the problems we had in Campus View and the Village,” said Brian M. Johnson, director of residence life, adding that even those problems were minor.

Part of the reason, he said, is that the older students are given a bit more freedom. The other part is simply that they are more mature as a group.

“At Rose Street Commons, with all our first-year programming in place, it allowed us to really help (students) through that transition, without conflicts of upperclassmen intertwined,” Johnson said.

Resident Assistants in Rose Street Commons receive specialized training to support their first-year residents and provide programming aimed at, ultimately, attaining academic success.

“When you’re just targeting freshmen, you can provide more programs on basic college preparation,” said Elliott Strickland Jr., chief student affairs officer.

A large lounge on the first floor of Dauphin Hall is among communal spaces where students can socialize and staff can offer programs. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.Resident Assistants arrange sessions on academic skill-building and plan social events designed for new students to get to know one another.

The design of Dauphin Hall is also conducive to developing “learning communities,” which have proven themselves on many college and university campuses in recent years and launched at Penn College in 2010-11.

“It’s a very simple concept,” Strickland said. “You have students living together that have the same major or same interests.”

Made up of first-year students, the groups are assigned a faculty mentor and a Resident Assistant from the school or major in which they are studying. Faculty mentors offer a program once a month, centered around the students’ common academic interests.

Students in the School of Health Sciences learning community get to know each other during a bowling outing. Photo courtesy of Marie G. Smith.In the program’s first year, the college offered learning communities for students in the School of Health Sciences, the School of Hospitality, automotive majors, and participants in the Presidential Leadership Program. In its second year, the college will concentrate on communities related to academics, dropping the leadership learning community and adding learning communities for aviation majors, the construction management major and information technology majors.

“I try to do a blend of things that are fun, educational and meaningful for them,” said Marie G. Smith, assistant professor of dental hygiene. Smith is faculty mentor to the School of Health Sciences learning community.

She planned bowling nights and Wii dance parties, as well as learning activities such as tips for classroom success and CPR training.

“The goal is to help students with academic success,” Smith said. “And to give them a sense of community and belonging.”

First-year students in the School of Health Sciences have a unique challenge: Their grades in their first-year, general education courses help determine who will secure one of the limited seats in their chosen major.

Giving them a channel to interact with other Health Sciences students is helpful, Smith said, “so they don’t feel so isolated, like they’re alone struggling to get into their program.”

Smith saw students feel more free to interact with one another, as attendance grew throughout the academic year.

Still, isolation and academic anxiety can be felt by students in any major. Jeffrey M. Januchowski, assistant professor of automotive technology and faculty mentor for the automotive technology learning community, arranged for representatives from Counseling Services and the Academic Success Center, among others, to speak with students in his learning community.

He also planned off-campus trips to the Antique Automobile Club of America’s Eastern Fall Meet in Hershey and to the New York International Auto Show.

Likewise, the hospitality management learning community incorporated trips to a local trout farm, farmers market and chocolate shop.

Faculty mentors point quickly to the Resident Assistants who are there to lend a guiding hand to the students in the learning communities, answering questions and offering the perspective of a veteran student sharing their major.

“I help them plan activities; I’m a piece of the puzzle, but they’re with them every day,” Smith said.

Januchowski said about half of the students living in the automotive technology learning community took part in the monthly activities.

“Those who participated had a great time,” he said. “They got to hang with their peers. … The real idea is to keep students interested.”

Keeping them interested and enabling them to feel part of the college community helps to keep students from leaving after the first semester or the first year.

“We’re trying to create intentional programming that builds on academic success,” Johnson said. “If we don’t do that, we’re not supporting the college’s academic mission.”

While it is early to track, initial outcomes indicate higher levels of academic success among students in the learning communities.

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