Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

By Andy Steiner; photos by Scott Streble

Sometimes, residents of the Antonian Honors floor at St. Catherine University like to listen to research presentations by faculty members who visit their community. Sometimes, they like to spend their time working on their own upcoming projects. Other times, they just like to get together and eat.

“They may be gifted academically, but deep down, they’re really just a normal group of young women,” says resident advisor (RA) Janet Bishop ’15 about the students she oversees. “They work really hard, and sometimes they just want to take a break to get their minds off their studies. So tonight we made brownies. I baked.”

Chocolaty goodness aside, the brownie break is an example of how members of Antonian Honors, one of St. Kate’s oldest living-learning communities, come together to support each other both academically — and socially. Over the last seven years, St. Catherine’s Office of Residence Life has created seven living-learning communities, self-selecting housing clusters designed to group students by interests, backgrounds and academic majors. Living-learning communities, or “theme housing,” have been popular at large universities nationwide for decades because they tend to make large campuses feel less intimidating for students. It’s only more recently that smaller colleges have taken up the trend, sparked by positive outcomes such programs can produce.

“Research has shown that feeling part of a close community are huge indicators of a student’s ability to persist at an institution,” says Heidi Anderson-Isaacson, director of residence life at St. Catherine. “If students aren’t making those connections at their university, they start to feel like, ‘who cares if I stay or not?’ But when a student lives in a strong living-learning community, they’re way more likely to stay — and excel.”

The University of Michigan saw the benefits early on — committing to living-learning communities since the 1960s. According to a study published by its Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, “students, in an environment where living and learning are integrated, demonstrate increased intellectual abilities in academic autonomy, critical thinking skills and cognitive development.” Additionally, they experience “gains in cultural and aesthetic interests, self-understanding, multicultural sensitivity and interpersonal skills.”

David Schoem, director of the Michigan Community Scholars Program, and also a respected expert in the field of theme housing, says the living-learning concept translates well to private, liberal arts institutions like St. Kate’s. “Too many universities have become more businesslike and corporate,” he explains. “Living-learning programs are the opposite of that. They really give students an opportunity to experience the essence of what I think college is meant to be — faculty and students really engaging with one another, exploring intellectual ideas, giving attention to the whole student, helping them to realize their dreams and reach their full potential. A school like St. Catherine is the perfect place to create those kinds of spaces for students.”

Community builder

It’s been 12 years since Anderson-Isaacson, the res life director, came to St. Kate’s, and she’s been working to create unique living-learning communities on campus ever since. “I remember we talked about the idea at my job interview,” she laughs, “so it’s clearly been a focus of mine for a very long time.”

It took a while to develop the communities because Anderson-Isaacson and her colleagues (a team of faculty, staff and administrators) wanted to make sure they did the job right. They started out by attending the National Summer Institute on Learning Communities at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Thanks to inspiration from this meeting, St. Kate’s first living-learning communities were launched the next year. As the idea gained popularity among students and faculty, other options were added.

Since their inception, each living-learning community at St. Kate’s has expanded to meet the interests of students. Global Perspectives, for instance, was originally developed as a place for French and Spanish majors exclusively; while language study remains an interest for many residents, the community’s focus has shifted to include students more broadly interested in international issues.

Creating a wide variety of campus housing opportunities encourages more students to live on campus, says Ellen Richter-Norgel, dean of students and retention, and alumnae who’ve lived on campus tend to feel more committed to the University. “It’s really a win-win situation for students — and the school,” she notes.

So far, Anderson-Isaacson’s push to encourage more Katies to live on campus has worked. “When I first got here, we didn’t even have 600 students living on campus,” she recalls, adding that the University now houses 80 percent of first-year students. “This fall, we have about 881 students living in residence halls. And some years, we’ve been close to 900.”

Brooms and books

Residents on the fourth floor of Caecilian Hall are a diverse bunch, but they have one thing in common. “We all are committed Potterites,” says Katie Maniates ’14, who for the last two years served as RA for Gryffindor Tower, St. Kate’s Harry Potter-focused living-learning community.

The floor, brainchild of English Professor Cecilia Konchar Farr and Anderson-Isaacson, is an extension of Konchar Farr’s popular “Six Degrees of Harry Potter” course, where residents live and learn in Hogwarts-style splendor, with a cozy meeting hall — complete with a crackling (gas) fireplace — plus an opening “sorting” ritual, where students are grouped into Hogwarts “houses” that match their personalities, just as in J.K. Rowling’s beloved books.

“At our first class meeting, we sort the entire floor,” Maniates explains. Just like in the books, she adds, “We go around with the sorting hat. If people have a huge preference we put them in their desired house. Otherwise we ask, ‘what’s your personality? Are you an introvert or an extrovert?’ Turns out, Hufflepuffs reign on our floor.”

Students who live in theme housing are interacting with their peers more frequently — including socializing, sharing personal belongings and studying with them — than students who don’t partake in living-learning programs, reports a study published by the Journal of College and University Student Housing. So, it’s no surprise that the Gryffindor residents are a close-knit and high-performing bunch.

“At St. Kate’s, we have a pretty sizable population of traditional-age college students who are looking for that residential experience,” Konchar Farr says. “I do think this kind of community is appropriate for St. Kate’s because what we do across the board here is make education the air we breathe. This is why I thought Harry Potter was so appropriate as a living-learning community, because young people already have such a sense of deep engagement in these texts.”

Being in charge of this community requires a serious commitment, but Maniates, the Gryffindor RA who graduated this past spring, is confident that her replacement, Katie Sengstock ’16, is the right woman for the job. “When I did my reapplication interview for my second year on Gryffindor, I came dressed in my robes,” Maniates says, with a chuckle. “Katie [the new RA] took it a step further. She came in her robe with a wand, and she did her entire presentation in a British accent.”

Intense interest in the subject matter is key to any living learning community’s success, Konchar Farr says. Students’ love for all things Harry Potter has been the fuel that has kept the class — and now the community — going, she says, and that passion is what she’s banking on for its continued prosperity.

“Learning isn’t something you do just when you go to this classroom space for three hours a week,” she says. “Learning is something you do in all of your life.”


The winning mix

A high-level of faculty collaboration and participation in the living-learning community program is “essential” to its success, reports the National Learning Communities Project. Here’s how our 2014 communities fit the bill:

American Sign Language in Carondelet Center. Elizabeth Siebert, assistant professor of ASL and interpreting, collaborates on themed activities and has weekly office hours.

Antonian Honors in Carondelet Center (current students) and St. Mary Hall (first-years). English professor Gayle Gaskill mentors residents.

Catholic Community in Morrison Hall. James Wollack, assistant professor of chemistry, engages residents in fellowship and other faith-based activities.

Emerging Scholars in St. Mary Hall. Donna Hauer (multicultural and international programs and services), Lizette Bartholdi (academic advising) and Kathy Eittrem (academic advising) teach topic-specific classes.

Global Perspectives in Crandall and Stanton Halls. Maria Laura Traetta (Argentina), Hasna El Hannach Ben Hammou (Spain) and Kimberly Postec (France) collaborate with residents on social events with an international flavor.

Gryffindor Tower in Caecilian Hall. English professor Cecilia Konchar Farr (Adjunct Jenny McDougal ’08 for 2014–15) pairs discussion and assignments with themed activities.

Healthy Living in Rauenhorst Hall. Public health professors Mary Hearst, Julie Mumm and Meghan Mason have office hours and offer health- and wellness-related programs.

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