In the past few years, Lehigh has expanded its Themed Community residence hall program to include programs for first-year students as well as upperclassmen. The Themed Community program is a collaboration between the Office of Residence Life, Office of Residential Services, and Office of First-Year Experience. Communities host events such as group meals, discussions, guest speakers, on-campus events, and off-campus trips specific to their area of interest. Each community is advised by at least one faculty or staff member, one Residence Life Assistant Director, and a Gryphon (Resident Assistant).
I sat down with Courtney Stephens, Associate Director of Residence Life, to find out more about this unique opportunity for students.
Besides the titles and the programming, what is the difference between the different themed communities?
There are two different types of themed communities: student driven and university sponsored. Like the name suggests, student driven communities are thought of and led by a student. These communities can be great since the students involved are typically passionate about their particular lifestyle area. The main pitfall is that once those students leave and stop recruiting other students to the community, it may fail to return the following year. It all depends on student interest. University sponsored programs are brought about by the university and tend to be about initiatives that the school supports–for example, CHOICE and UMOJA.
What would you say to first-year students who are afraid of missing out on the more “traditional” first-year residence hall experience?
It’s a misconception that living in a themed community is not “normal.” Every other aspect of living in a residence hall is the same except for the programming aspect. The programming is done with the theme in mind and tailored to the students’ interests. And since everyone in these halls has a common interest, it can be easier and faster to make friends.
If students hear about an event on a themed community floor, are they welcome to join even though they don’t live on that floor?
Yup, and a lot of times it’s just by word of mouth. So they might be walking through a floor and see a flyer or something like that, but I think typically it’s just you find your people. And that doesn’t mean that your people are only the people you live with. You could be in class with something and they mention “Oh yeah, we’re going kayaking this weekend!” and you are interested in attending. I don’t think anyone would say “We only want M&M residents interacting with M&M residents.” We want everybody! I mean also Greek and non-Greek. We want everybody who lives here to come together, and it sounds so hunky-dory, but it’s your home and we want it to feel like a home. And it feels more like a home when you know the people around you.
What do you think is the advantage to living in a themed community vs. a “traditional” residence hall (for both first-years and upperclassmen)?
My assumption is that residents who signed up for the themed experiences have a vested interest or passion in their respective community. Therefore, one of the advantages to living in a themed community is the programming focuses on what you love! For instance, if you live in the Outdoor Adventure community and like to hike or kayak, you have built-in and funded opportunities to take advantage of, while simultaneously experiencing the “typical” community feel of being surrounded by other Lehigh students trying to find their way on campus. The networking opportunities are also more typical in the themed communities. ORL Assistant Directors and community advisors work to provide residents with chances to interact with people or groups that have relevant experience to the respective community, such as early access to featured campus speakers or presenters.
What are some changes that you are looking forward to seeing?
At the Ivy League schools and others private institutions that are similar to Lehigh, there is a big push for the concept of faculty living on campus to work more closely with students. All of the themed communities have at least one advisor who is a faculty or staff member that works closely with the students to see that they are getting that education outside of the classroom.
Right now, students know where the residence halls are, they know what a Gryphon is, and we want to take that to the next level and this is one way in which we can do that. It’s building a connection, and not just a program on that floor, but something they are already interested in with people from Lehigh.
Director Ashley Lemmons of the Office of Residence Life weighed in on the idea of including faculty members in residence halls and what studies have shown to support it.
Residential colleges and the aforementioned forms of contemporary residence education programs share a common goal of seeking to integrate in-class learning with out-of- class experiences in residential settings. What distinguishes classic residential colleges from other forms of residence education is the level and quality of faculty involvement. In residential colleges found in leading universities, faculty and students live and work in shared residential facilities. Since the publication of the landmark study Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of Higher Education, published by the National Institute of Education in 1984, numerous reports have called for increased emphases on improving teaching and learning, increasing student involvement in learning, and integrating in-class and out-of- class learning. The benefits for students derived from simply living on campus, as opposed to living off campus, are well documented. Living on campus has been linked to increases in aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual values; increases in self-concept, intellectual orientation, autonomy, and independence; gains in tolerance, empathy, and interpersonal skills; persistence in college; and degree attainment. A 1998 meta-analysis by Gregory Blimling of studies published from 1966 through June 1997 shows, however, that residential colleges, as compared to conventional halls, increase students’ academic performance and retention and enhance the social climate of the living unit.
For more on the Themed Communities, here are descriptions on each of the first-year communities offered for the 2016-2017 year:
Live.Learn.Serve.: Through community service, students will explore what it means to be an active citizen with one’s local community and discover how personal contributions and community assets can collectively strengthen one’s community.
CHOICE: This community is committed to healthy, substance-free living and active engagement. The residents are connected with one another and are involved in enhancing the Lehigh community as a whole. The advisor and Gryphon plan extra/co-curricular activities that promote a sense of community and foster individual success.
UMOJA: “Umoja” means “Unity” in Swahili. This community helps residents explore diversity and multiculturalism. Throughout the year, the UMOJA family becomes a center of mentorship and support that is committed to identity development and learning about others’ experiences.
ArtsAlive: ArtsAlive connects living and learning through the arts on campus and in the local community. The community encourages participants to explore the arts and is open to all levels of artistic ability. The community’s goal is for students to exercise their creative energy and seek inspiration through multiple experiences.
Creative Commons: Entrepreneurship & Innovation: Creative Commons houses students from a variety of backgrounds with two things in common: big ideas and the drive to make them a reality. These students tap into their creative energy and explore their passions alongside of similarly motivated students through collaboration with the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship and innovators in and around Bethlehem.
Global Lehigh: A community of domestic and international students interested in exploring different countries and cultures through events, meals, guest speakers, film, and more. Students will connect with Lehigh’s resources for globalization, including the Office of International Students and Scholars, the Study Abroad Office, and the Lee Iacocca Institute. Participation in immersive events and discussion celebrating international cultures will expand students’ worldviews and prepare students for leadership roles in the global community.
Outdoor Adventure: This community is for students interested in outdoor recreation and adventure sports, as well as conservationism and nature.
STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, STEM develops students for leadership roles in their chosen field through programming with experts, peer-to-peer mentoring, and close faculty advising for residents.