Last year, University student Caleb Blue Arm had trouble finding other American Indian students on campus.
This year, American Indian students come to him for advice. Blue Arm is a peer mentor for one of the University’s newest living and learning communities: the American Indian Cultural House in Comstock Hall.
Living and learning communities allow first-year students to live in a “house,” or special section of a residence hall, with students who share interests.
The University has approximately 20 living and learning communities, with themes ranging from women in science and engineering to global studies.
New communities can start from a college, a department or student interest.
Susan Stubblefield, assistant director for Housing and Residential Life, said the program has grown from 286 students to approximately 900 in eight years.
“(The program) helps students have stronger connections to their academic interests,” Stubblefield said.
Sarah Corrigan, a College of Biological Sciences assistant academic adviser who works with the Biology House, said students benefit because the communities address the different degrees of career preparation students bring to the University.
Some outside the University also support living and learning communities – but recognize their shortcomings.
Dr. Lars Christiansen, a sociology professor at Augsburg College, is a proponent of learning communities but said he has some reservations.
“Learning communities can be good at bonding and bringing together, but they don’t reach out,” Christiansen said. “Connections are going to be limited.”
Liz Bentzler, a University senior who lived in the Biology House her first year, said she did not feel limited.
“There is a chance that students will be isolated, but Biohouse is in Frontier, which is all freshmen,” Bentzler said. “You really can’t avoid meeting people here.”
Although the communities’ effectiveness cannot be directly measured, some are monitored based on how many students remain in the same college and how many graduate in four years.
Bentzler said she has remained friends with many other Biology House residents and is now a community adviser in Frontier Hall.
“Coming to the University can be scary for some students, especially when they don’t know anyone with similar interests,” she said.
But the communities offer more than just a chance to meet students with similar interests, Stubblefield said. The communities also have a “cross-functional” team which oversees them. The team – composed of University faculty and staff – evaluate the program monthly.
Additionally, the U-Crew – a student-run support group made up of volunteers – is available to help students in the living and learning communities.
U-Crew peer mentors live in the community and are available to counsel students.
Carlin Jackson-Page, a first-year student housed in the American Indian Cultural House, said the community has helped his transition.
“This program is very helpful,” Jackson-Page said. “It might make it a little harder to go out and meet other people, but it really just depends on the person.”
This smooth transition is just what Stubblefield said she aims to provide.
“The University is a big place,” Stubblefield said. “Living and learning communities make it seem a little smaller.”
Stubblefield said the next step is to expand the program to students at different levels. “The real challenge is to have the program include multiple years, so it isn’t only for freshmen,” Stubblefield said.