Don’t Call It a Dorm

With art studios, on-site classes and live-in professors, today’s residence halls offer more than a place to sleep.
Patricia Aguerrevere

Patricia Aguerrevere paints a mural in a living-learning community. By 2009, more than 200 colleges had added living-learning communities. Photo by by Jon M. Fletcher (BSJ ’99).

By Marissa Gainsburg (4JM)

In a paint-splattered studio in Reid Hall, Patricia Aguerrevere (BAHA ’11, 7ED) adds a swath of bright blue to an already colorful mural. Next door in Yulee Hall, a yoga class stretches into plank position in front of a world map. And in Hume Hall, Saajan Panikar (4ALS) debates with his peers in philosophy class. They’re all things you’d expect to find on a college campus — but probably not in a dorm.

Welcome to the living-learning community, a growing trend that carries learning outside of the classroom. Each of the University of Florida’s 11 on-campus communities has a core purpose — from promoting wellness to developing leadership skills — reflected in everything from its design to its facilities.

For the most part, the communities are built around particular majors or interests, while others mirror trends in society.

Yamaline Jean-Baptiste

Originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, student Yamaline Jean-Baptiste (3NSG) resides in Yulee Hall, where many international students make their UF home away from home. Photo by Jon M. Fletcher.

“I never feel alone here,” says Yamaline Jean-Baptiste (3NSG), who has lived in Yulee for two years. “Here, we all do activities together. We cook, we study, and we share stories about our native country. That’s a big thing for someone like me, who came from Haiti knowing nobody.”

Nationwide studies show that students who live on campus are more socially satisfied and involved with the university and have better GPAs and retention rates than their off-campus counterparts. Those rates are significantly higher for those in learning communities, according to the National Study of Living-Learning Programs.

That’s because LLCs, as they’re known, create communities within the larger university, says Diane Porter-Roberts (PhD ’05), associate director for student learning and engagement at UF’s Department of Housing and Residence Education.

“It’s all about making the university smaller,” Porter-Roberts says. “People are always looking for something to connect to, especially during a major transition in their lives.”

By 2009, more than 200 colleges had added living-learning communities. (UF’s account for almost a third of its residence halls.) And at least two more communities — one for students in the ROTC program and one to accompany the university’s new entrepreneurial endeavor, Innovation Hub — are on the way.

The days of the “dormitory” — a word that comes from the Latin word for sleep — are over, says Sharon Blansett, assistant to the associate vice president for Student Affairs, the division that oversees housing at UF.

“A dorm is a building where you sleep,” Blansett says. “A residence hall is a place where you live, learn, grow and develop.”

Evolution of an Era

Though formal living-learning communities didn’t appear until 2002, their history at UF goes as far back as 1939, when the newly built Fletcher Hall housed exchange students from Latin America and UF students who were learning Spanish. Fletcher Library became such a popular hangout spot for the mix of students that it was dubbed the Inter-American Lounge.

An on-site class

At Hume Hall's Honors Residential College, Saajan Panikar (4ALS) and other students take classes on-site. Photo by Jon M. Fletcher.

But the model itself goes back nearly a thousand years, when Cambridge and Oxford universities housed faculty with students to promote interaction. UF adopted a faculty-in-residence program in 1986 in Hume Hall. Seeing the success of live-in faculty, UF razed the old Hume to make way for a state-of-the-art honors residence complex with study lounges, conference rooms and a classroom. The new Hume, which opened in 2002, was the first facility in the country created specifically as a residential college.

“The fact that Hume is the honors hall gives it that academic edge,” says Kelly Sullivan, residence life coordinator for Graham and Hume. “But the staff and facilities take it over the edge.”

Unlike most residence halls that limit study spaces to lounges where students also cook or watch TV, Hume offers a dedicated study building. The 24-hour area offers oversized chairs with tabletops and three conference rooms for group meetings. Hume’s live-in faculty member, senior lecturer David Barber, hosts a pre-professional reception every semester, which brings in admission directors from UF’s medical, pharmacy and dental schools to network with students.

“Students at Hume are pretty much going through the same things,” Sullivan says. “The same challenges, sometimes the same classes. It’s a tighter-knit community than most.”

Today for Tomorrow

Yulee Hall is on campus, but its community spans the globe. The hall’s concept is thinking internationally. The entire building conveys sustainability and cultural awareness, from the compass etched into the floor to the double kitchen sinks designed for those who keep kosher or don’t eat meat. Trash receptacles, made from recycled materials, are labeled “Landfill” to remind residents to minimize waste. Bamboo floors, a map mural and televisions tuned to international channels remind students of the world outside of Gainesville.

Yulee also offers a peer mentorship program with graduate students in Diamond Village, the majority of whom are international students. Several days a week, residents can meet with their mentors in Yulee’s new conference room, where books from around the world fill the shelves. Women’s studies assistant professor Anita Anantharam and assistant professor of religion Travis Smith, Yulee’s faculty-in-residence couple, develop programs for residents that explore gender issues, food and water challenges and religious conflicts. Anantharam’s programs even earned her recognition as faculty-in-residence of the month from the National Association of College and University Residence Halls.

Laura Weiss

Laura Weiss (3FA, center) practices her French horn as roommate Marielena Torres works online in their dorm room in Reid Hall. Students in the hall are permitted to practice their instruments. Photo by Jon M. Fletcher.

Researchers use Yulee as a practicum site for studies on waste, water and energy consumption, using dashboard screens in the hall office that track residents’ usage. Through these studies, the hall that embraces sustainability could be the foundation for the next wave in the green movement.

Creative Collaboration

Reid Hall, the community for those majoring or interested in the arts, works with the College of Fine Arts to foster creativity with contests and events. “Reid is definitely one of our halls where students really live the lifestyle,” says Mary Jordan (8ED), coordinator of academic residential programs. “It’s very artsy, almost like a different school entirely.”

Just walk into the art studio at 3 a.m. to see the students at work — on easels, on the wall, even on the door. The walls are repainted once a year, says residence life coordinator Ayesha Rizvi Mian, but they’re covered with sketches, paintings and words within weeks. One wall, now covered with a painting of a black horse, will soon be replaced with a mirror for dancers looking for a place to practice. For musicians, the hall also has designated hours when students can play instruments in their rooms.

Though Reid doesn’t have a live-in faculty member, it has an apartment designed for visiting artists, who can stay from one day to an entire month. Artists such as sculptor Brendan Jamison, who has a permanent collection in the Museum of Modern Art, and the nationally renowned chamber musicians of the Beaux Arts Trio have visited to teach workshops, mentor students and talk about their career paths.

Foundation of the Future

“Our communities turn halls into homes,” says Blansett. She says the housing department plans to develop more living-learning communities until they make up half of the 24 undergraduate residence halls on campus.

“When you give students a common thread to hang onto, they will hold onto it even after they leave,” Porter-Roberts says. “It’s more than a place to stay on campus; it’s a place that stays with them when they leave campus and go off into the world.”

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