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Rethinking residences as learning communities

By Sally Jongsma

There is a world of difference between the habits and needs of underclass students and those of upperclass students. In the past few years, as Dordt has more intently focused on what it takes for students to be successful in college, this disparity has become more apparent. Many freshmen and sophomore students need help establishing good academic habits. Most upperclass students, on the other hand, have learned to take responsibility for their studies and are looking to see how what they’re learning fits with the next stage of their lives. They are thinking about their calling in life—what careers they will enter and how they will practice Christian discipleship. Aware of these differences, the student services staff spent part of the fall semester looking at how they do their work and how they could more effectively help their students.

“We started by asking what our shared vision is,” says Bethany Schuttinga, vice president for student services. The staff drew, in part, on what is known on campus as the AART report, the Academic Administration Review Team’s recommendation for restructuring the academic administration at Dordt College. Among the report’s recommendations was that upon the retirement of Vice President for Academic Affairs Rockne McCarthy, the college appoint a provost who would give administrative leadership not only to the academic but also to the student services area of the college. Such a structure gives an opportunity for faculty and student development staff to work more collaboratively in the educational process— for the benefit of students.

Resident Assistants like Justin Carruthers (left) will stay in touch with the academic progress of the students on their floors or wings.

Resident Assistants like Justin Carruthers (left) will stay in touch with the academic progress of the students on their floors or wings.

“We want to create a structure in which that can happen,” says Schuttinga. “We have a good curriculum, and we have good programs going in student services,” she adds, “But one piece that can use more emphasis is nurturing students’ academic success. Staff will now provide more academic assistance outside of the classroom and make more room for out-ofclass conversations on issues that are important to students.

Dordt’s student development philosophy is based on nurturing the whole person— helping students develop meaningful relationships, learn responsibility, grow in faith, and participate in conversations about important issues in their world. Research shows, says Schuttinga, that residential communities offer good opportunities for students to engage ideas—opportunities that are different from those in classrooms.

As they thought about their tasks and organization, student services staff members began talking about learning communities rather than residential communities. Staff positions and titles are being redefined with that emphasis in mind. Four ten-month resident director positions will be replaced by two full-time professionals who will work with freshmen and sophomore students— one in North and East Halls, the other in West and Covenant Halls.

Students in the residence halls participate in a variety of community-building activities, including sprucing up their group living spaces.

Students in the residence halls participate in a variety of community-building activities, including sprucing up their group living spaces.

In addition, each of these residence halls will have a student Learning Community Assistant.

“In the first two years, the main concerns are retention and academic success,” says Schuttinga. The student learning community assistants will live in the hall and be paid to help students who need academic help, serving as a contact with academic advisors when needed and pointing their fellow students to services in the Academic Skills Center. Student services staff also will plan activities that put students and faculty in conversation with each other about topics students are interested in or feel would be helpful to talk about in a different context.

Student Resident Assistants will still be hired in each wing of the residence halls. They will develop relationships with the residents on their wings, provide resources as needed, make space for worship, prayer, academics, and relationships, and support what is happening in the classroom in any way they can. Each wing also will elect a representative to serve on a hall council. Called Program Advisors, these students will help plan wing and building events. “The biggest changes will be noticed by upperclass students,” says Dean of the Chapel Rod Gorter. Replacing the current ten student resident assistants will be four Community Development Assistants and several hall representatives. The community development assistants will work with Gorter and a Campus Ministry Coordinator to set up what they are calling Barnabas and Philip Groups. Barnabas Groups will include activities such as small group discussions, Bible studies, and prayer groups. The Philip Groups will participate in outreach and service projects.

“We make a lot of assumptions that spiritual growth is happening, but we can encourage that growth by the kind of social activities and the kinds of relationships we nurture,” says Schuttinga.

Student services staff say that the new structure gives upperclass students more opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and hold one another accountable. Having an authority figure in a Resident Assistant position can actually keep students from being accountable, staff members say. If a student acts improperly, others expect the RA to deal with it. “If we believe that people should live covenantally within community, then the authority role isn’t the primary one,” Schuttinga says. And any concerns soon show up in the residence halls or in interactions with faculty or work study supervisors.

The newly reorganized structure in student services, in the end, is an outworking of the staff’s goal for student growth: seeing students as whole people who are learning to discern how they can best use their gifts and live their lives to serve the Lord.