Residential College: the ‘best of both worlds’

Jennifer Niemela

Still a new program, Residential College invokes some of the oldest traditions in academia; administrators call the college a vision for the University’s future.
Perhaps one of the most successful new undergraduate programs, the college began three years ago with 94 freshmen in Territorial Hall.
Students in the college take courses with other students who all live together; the program emphasizes daily interaction among faculty members and students. The college only accepts incoming freshmen who can continue in the program through graduation.
Today, there are 320 Residential College students in both Territorial and Argyle House, which was built specifically for the college last summer by Dinnaken Properties.
“The apartments in Argyle are attractive,” said Director Gayle Graham Yates. “Although it’s technically off-campus living, we’re trying to make it seem University-owned.”
The new building, which houses 170 Residential College students, is a dramatic improvement over the facilities the program occupied in Territorial Hall in its first year, 1994-95.
“We had no facilities,” said Marvin Marshak, Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs. “We had a room we called the cell block (in Territorial) because there were no windows, concrete walls, pipes running along the ceiling.”
An important concept of the program is the idea of “courses in common.” This entails about a dozen residential college students taking a 1000-level course together and forming study groups with other residents. Sometimes recitations will be scheduled at Territorial or Argyle House.
Because of the program’s success, different kinds of residential colleges are in the works.
“We’d like to try this in different areas, as well,” said Yates. “A commuter college, a re-entry college, or a women’s college with courses in common.”
Marshak said the Honors College is another type of residential college which started two years ago in Middlebrook Hall; next year he said he hopes to follow through on plans for a biology college where students in the same discipline live and take classes together.
The residential experience is intended to give students a feeling of community within the often overwhelming size of the University.
“There’s lots of research that says what you need for success is lots of student-student interaction and faculty-student interaction,” said Marshak. “When you get those two together, the performance of students goes up.”
Sophomore Jon Lundstrom, president of the Residential College Student Board, said the program allows social interaction to reinforce academic studies.
“For me and a lot of the students here, the best thing is the courses in common,” he said. “It allows you to create a group of friends and study together.”
However, Yates said that the growing number of upperclassmen in the college makes taking courses in common difficult.
“Upperclassmen serve the educational and social needs of freshmen,” Yates said, adding that upperclassmen don’t usually take common courses. They instead form tutoring sessions and study groups for the freshmen.
Having more upperclassmen in the program will change the complexion of the college, said Lundstrom. Because courses in common don’t include classes higher than the 3000 level, upperclassmen are expected to contribute a few hours a week tutoring or answering phones in the Residential College office.
“(Upperclassmen are) usually busier that freshmen, but I think they realize when they sign up again that they’ll have to commit some time to it,” said Lundstrom. “You have to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t ask a lot of you, just that you show enthusiasm and be there for the freshmen.”
Marshak said having upperclassmen in the program is important for the development of the freshmen.
“It’s good to have a mix of first-year and upper-class students,” he said. “It’s important for socialization.”
Residential College Coordinator Tonya Cherry attributed some student interest to initial parental attraction.
“First the parents like it, then the students tell other students about it,” she said. “The parents really like the faculty interaction part of it. It’s like Shredded Wheat. The parents like the healthy wheat side, the kids like the frosting.”
Yates also said one fear is that the college will grow too large to serve its purpose. To create a community setting, the program’s size must remain relatively small.
“One pitfall is that it just becomes organizational on paper,” Yates said, adding that, next to the educational benefits of the small setting, the social aspect of knowing the people around you is the most important idea behind the college.
“It’s a small college within a large, high-quality institution,” said Yates, who compares the college to the Morris campus of the University. “It’s the best of both worlds.”