Virginia Tech dorm a learning experience

During his first week at Virginia Tech, Frank Shushok Jr. toured a 1960s-era residence hall that was being renovated as a resortlike facility, complete with movie theater, gym, gaming room and a salon with affordable spray-tanning.

He was shocked.

“I am operating under a completely different mental model of what residence halls are supposed to be,” said Shushok, the associate vice president for student affairs who is entering his third year at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. A residence hall should be “a place where students live so they can learn.”

Shushok instead proposed creating a “residential college” where undergraduates, graduate students and faculty could live together in a facility dedicated to learning. It’s a time-tested idea, having debuted at Oxford and Cambridge universities hundreds of years ago and then been adopted at Ivy League and small liberal arts schools.

So in 2009, Tech officials halted the renovation of Ambler Johnston Hall for a month so they could revisit the design. The salon was one of the first things to go, replaced by a suite of faculty offices. Meeting rooms became classrooms. Eighteen revenue-generating student rooms were turned into two rent-free apartments for live-in professors.

The movie theater was allowed to stay, but it became “The Theater of Learning” where faculty lead discussions about foreign films and popular culture. The building also has “The Gaming Room of Learning” and “The Library of Learning,” where the door is kept open with a wedge labeled “The Doorstop of Learning.”

It might sound like some New Age gimmick, but simply pointing out learning opportunities can change the way students think about their living environment and invite faculty members to get involved, Shushok said.

“Where else at a college or university is a student going to spend more time than a residence hall?” he said.

Many universities have adopted elements of the residential college model in an effort to connect dorm life to the classroom, but most don’t mix freshmen with upperclassmen. Nearly all schools offer living and learning communities so students can enroll in classes with their dorm neighbors. Many schools, including American and Georgetown universities, encourage faculty members to live in dorms.

The University of Virginia established its first residential college in the 1980s, and many honors dorms operate this way. Recently, some large research universities, such as Baylor University in Texas and the University of Mississippi, have begun incorporating the idea into housing for all students.

This fall, the east wing of Tech’s Ambler Johnston Hall is home mostly to honors students: 150 freshmen; 170 sophomores, juniors and seniors; two graduate students; two professors; and a dog named Liam. A west wing will open next fall to house 800 students of all majors and another professor or two. Students will have to apply for a spot, and room-and-board rates are comparable to regular dorms.

Documenting the experience

Although the learning-focused environment is a natural fit for students in Tech’s honors program, some wonder whether it will fall apart when hundreds of regular students show up next year — or when the newness wears off. Some officials have questioned whether the university can afford to cut the number of student rooms to make way for free housing for professors or build dorms that don’t cater to what some students want, like salons and gyms, Shushok said.

Leaders of the project are carefully documenting the experiment in hopes of proving residential colleges can have a payoff, such as increasing retention rates or helping attract high-caliber students.

“There is some pressure on us because we have to show that this transforms the lives of students and the lives of faculty and the life of the university,” said Terry Papillon, director of Virginia Tech’s University Honors program.

Shushok hopes that students return to their rooms or floors year after year, creating a “multi-generational” neighborhood where seniors live next door to freshmen. Research has found that students often learn the most from their slightly older peers, he said.

The idea diverges from the norm of cloistering freshmen in their own buildings so they can awkwardly figure out college without annoying upperclassmen. After all, what junior or senior would want to be part of that process?

An academic family

The program is an opportunity for participants to feel like part of an academic family and to mentor younger members, said some of the students living in East Ambler Johnston. They gushed about the feeling of community they’ve built in just a month.

“I couldn’t tell you the names of my neighbors freshman year,” said Grace Mulholland, 19, a junior biology and psychology major from New Jersey. In most residence halls, students make an effort to make new friends the first few weeks of classes and then stop. “Here, everyone is still going out and meeting people.”

Plus, the students are united in wanting an intensely academic experience. They say they are less likely to hide their personalities, ambitions or crazy ideas, such as a proposal for “pant-less Fridays” so male students can strut around in makeshift kilts.

“People want this to be a place where’s it’s safe to be weird,” said Patrick Goley, 28, a junior electrical engineering major from Gaithersburg, who is co-president of East Ambler Johnston, along with Mulholland.

“It’s not that they’re weird, it’s that they are unique,” said Papillon, the honors director. “We want the students to feel like they can be who they will be.”

It can be hard to find that environment at a large public university like Tech, where some instructors are overloaded with the stresses of teaching, research and trying to get tenure.

The spirit of learning has been refreshing for Heather Gumbert and Robert Stephens, history professors who have been married for 13 years and live in Ambler Johnston with their dog. They attend most hall events, invite students over for dinner and find themselves staying up past midnight, discussing such things as quantum mechanics with students.

“This is why I decided to become a professor,” said Gumbert, an assistant professor of history who as an undergraduate lived in a residential college at Trent University in Canada.

Gumbert and Stephens said some faculty can’t even locate residence halls on campus, so this could be their gateway to meeting with students where they spend most of their time. Already more than 30 faculty members have volunteered to guest lecture at the hall, lead discussions and mentor students. They also donated most of the cookware in the “Kitchen of Learning,” where students gather to make soup on Friday nights and pancakes on Sunday mornings.

The real challenge for Tech will come next fall, when the second wing opens for 800 students who don’t have the honors program to rally around.

It will work as long as “we remain very clear and committed to the environment we’ve created,” Shushok said. “Let’s not let the shiny stuff get in the way of what we do here.”

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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