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Faculty principals, fellows bring sense of community, shared knowledge to residential college


BLACKSBURG, Va., Feb. 28, 2012 – There are several living-learning communities at Virginia Tech, from housing for engineering students to community service-centered living, but none are quite like the Honors Residential College at East Ambler Johnston.

This new community is in its first year at Virginia Tech and is quickly charting a new course for the university. It is based on a model that has been in place at some Ivy League schools and small liberal arts colleges for many years, and one of the advantages it offers students is the opportunity to experience the life of a small, student-centered college while attending a large, research-oriented university.

“The idea is that a big university can be alienating, and by creating smaller, caring communities where people know each other and they’re known by other people, you can create an environment that allows students to achieve to their highest potential,” said Robert Stephens, associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and one of two faculty principals in the Honors Residential College.

The Honors Residential College is open to University Honors students from all years and majors. It is housed in the newly renovated East Ambler Johnston Hall, and features amenities like renovated living quarters for students and common spaces such as a fitness center, a large state-of-the-art kitchen, and a 49-seat theater for the approximately 320 residents. 

While these features certainly make the residential college stand out among residence hall communities, one of the most important differences is its team of two live-in faculty principals and 33 faculty fellows. These are university faculty from diverse disciplines, staff, and community members who participate in the daily lives of students, which its faculty principals say is key to establishing a sense of community.

In the Honors Residential College, the faculty principal roles fall to Stephens and Heather Gumbert, assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. They have served as faculty principals since the college opened at the beginning of the fall semester.

Stephens and Gumbert have worked to develop the academic and cultural aspects of the college that will contribute to the longevity of the community. “One of the fundamental elements of a residential college is having a rhythm of life, whether that be a rhythm of the week or of the academic year,” Gumbert said.

They achieve this in various ways, including holding formal and informal gatherings, such as a weekly dinner at D2 dining center and afternoon teas, where students and faculty can mingle and faculty speakers share their thoughts on a variety of topics, including personal and professional interests and stories.

“Conversations between students and the fellows at the Friday teas are rich and reflect the very purpose of why a residential college was created,” said Associate Director of Academic Initiatives for Residence Life Jamie Penven. “During these events you can hear students and faculty fellows discussing research and world and local issues as well as opportunities for education abroad, internships, and other avenues geared toward enhancing the undergraduate experience.”

The diversity of disciplines, interests, and backgrounds displayed at these events and in daily life at the college is also a crucial element in the success of the community.

“A key to the residential college is that it’s multigenerational, it’s multidisciplinary, and that combination — faculty working with students outside the classroom, older students working with younger students, and different people with different interests sharing their interests — is magic, and it’s enriching,” Stephens said. “It makes them more broadminded, more thoughtful people.”

Stephens said a proud and affirming moment for him came when he inadvertently witnessed a late-night study session with 20 to 25 students from different disciplines and years sitting in the hallway and helping each other. This cross section of college students is part of what ultimately makes the shared learning experience possible.

As faculty principals, Stephens and Gumbert are also responsible for operations, including recruitment and sustainability, as well as forming partnerships across the university and the outside community.

Many community partnerships have already been formed through the selection of the faculty fellows. Stephens said many of them are from Virginia Tech, but some are simply members of the community.

Faculty Fellow Brian Britt, a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said he was attracted to the residential college because of how he believes it can benefit both students and the university.

“Virginia Tech is a great place, but for Virginia Tech to get to that next level this is exactly the kind of thing it needs — activities and institutions that bridge the curriculum and co-curriculum, the academic life and the student life,” he said. “This isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, but it’s great that the university had the vision to put this together. The resources are plentiful, and now it’s up to the people involved to make it really successful.”

Britt said that while being a faculty fellow is still a learning experience, he believes he and the faculty principals and other faculty fellows are part of something that could ultimately be much bigger for Virginia Tech.

“For me, the commitment to do this in West Ambler Johnston is a commitment to make this kind of experience available to all of the students,” Britt said. “I would definitely suggest that faculty pay attention to this because it has radical and positive implications for the university.”

The Honors Residential College is one part of an existing effort across Virginia Tech to merge the academic and social worlds of students so that intellectual development occurs in all areas of their lives. The larger initiative includes a second residential college to open in West Ambler Johnston Hall in fall 2012, the new Academic Resource Center in Pritchard Residence Hall, and several other living-learning communities on campus. These communities are designed to promote learning on a broader scale, as well as to complement the Division of Student Affairs’ five aspirations for student learning: unwavering curiosity, self-understanding and integrity, civility, courageous leadership, and the values of the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

The Division of Student Affairs at Virginia Tech encompasses departments dedicated to providing a rich co-curricular experience and essential student services. Virtually every aspect of a student's life outside the classroom is represented through the division's departments.

Written by Jennifer Gibson.