Living Learning Communities at Whittier College: Redeeming the Housing Program

Imagine walking into the Stauffer residential hall building and seeing several flags from different countries on the walls and doors of students. These are the flags of the nation each individual student represents and they are expressing their heritage to Whittier College. Also imagine pictures of families and family trees of these same students around the residence hall expressing their history and culture for all to see. In this scenario a simple floor of Stauffer has become Whittier College’s multicultural house. In this house, students are granted the freedom to express their culture and heritage along with learning about the history and heritage of each other’s families. In addition, students share their experiences of growing up as potentially a Latino, Asian, African American, or even in some European ran household. In this way, students are immersing themselves with new information about different cultures and lifestyles outside of the American culture.

A different way we could refer to themed housing is as a living learning community. Colleges and universities across the nation use these programs as a mode of teaching, learning, and most importantly community building. Part of the purpose is to help Whittier College increase freshman retention rates. The program is for students to pick a theme he or she is interested in as a first year, and then they pick a class that corresponds with said theme. These students will have a faculty advisor who lives among them in the respected building and they will be in the same class taught by the faculty advisor. Part of the program requires students to participate in community service parallels with the theme as well. For example, with a multicultural theme, students can become involved with the cultural center to see what extracurricular activities they can partake in. Whittier College Dean of Students and Residential Life departments plan to spend an average $15,000-$20,000 on the program according to Dean Joel Perez.

However, according to Associate Dean Josh Hartman, “the school is short staffed and we are struggling to jump start the program. We are purely in the planning stage.” The two deans ultimately want to get the program done correctly and close to perfect as they can. “The prospective school year for the program to begin is for the 2018–2019 school year,” concurred Perez.

In addition to the student life office being understaffed, there are several components involved in actually running a living learning community. Hartman states, “I hold three different positions in addition to helping Joel (Perez) out. I am the Director of Student Conduct, Case Management, and Residential Life therefore I am too busy. The three people that I have in residential life right now (Felirose Tamparong, Tea Bogue, and Tina Correl) are real busy themselves too. So as you can see, it’s a difficult time right now to start the program and we just don’t have the staff for it yet.”

In order for living learning communities to be existent someone needs to start up the staff support for the students. This means having faculty advisors from multiple departments such as English, History, Business, and the hard sciences to take charge of a themed house. They are the ones to be in charge of the house’s events, learning outcomes and expectations, possibly live in a residence hall, and help students obtain educational opportunities outside the classroom. Secondly, there needs to be an individual who starts and establishes the application process for students to enroll themselves. It is a web portal similar to the online room draw students use when they select their roommates for the following school year. However, this time they are choosing a preselected theme or have the option to create their own and if there are enough similar interests in the same program, then an approval will be made if the theme is deemed appropriate to have and when a faculty advisor is selected. The faculty advisor, student life, and residential life offices will sit together and come up with an agenda on how to run the community program.

According to Laura McEnaney, Whittier College once had a program similar to living learning communities. There were paired courses and students who were grouped together in the same residence hall with corresponding to their program. However, do to the understaffed student life and residential life offices, the program was discontinued. However, the plan is to bring living learning communities back and with the help of the Science Learning Center, it would parallel the expected invigorating learning outcomes the new building is supposed to bring.

Considering the elections and the day after when Trump won, it is important that students can find solidarity among their peers in the residence halls. In an interview with Dean Perez, Hartman, and Laura McEnaney of the History department the question of whether or not living-learning communities would help students cope with the turnout would help. The answers among the three were unanimous. However, more importantly Hartman replied, “so you talked about the elections? We’re not talking about all Republicans living on one floor or Democrats on another and all centrists in another. No, that’s not what it’s about. But there is a great opportunity for students to create a themed housing centered on politics and values that are expressed in America and politics” said Hartman.

This is how a democratic system should work where split political systems come together and can talk and find commonalities on issues that mainstream politics can never find a consensus. Imagine a house with that type of scenario in which students can peacefully voice their political opinions without feeling attacked by an opposing view. It’s a space for students to expand their minds and vernacular on social and political ideas going on in the world. Within that house, students can host events with guest speakers and have forums with professors to extend their learning opportunities on a spectrum of interdisciplinary ideologies.

In an interview with Dean of Students Joel Perez, there was discussion about the role, purpose, and goals of living learning communities for the college. Perez was asked, what positive aspects could you see for living learning communities?

He replied with, “Well the way I think about it is it helps to create a stronger sense of community and a particular sub population and give students opportunities to learn and grow outside the classroom.”

Living learning communities are housing experiences Whittier College can offer to students who live on campus that will enhance the liberal arts education. It is a way to integrate living on campus and being inside the classroom. For example, with a residence hall dedicated to health and wellness, students would have a list of rules dictating drugs and alcohol are restricted. These students would implement an exercise regimen into their daily lives on top of their academic schedule. Students living in learning living communities literally create sub communities from the one Whittier College has already established for them and they learn to grow based off their experiences.

Speaking with Area Coordinator Joel Melendez, issues were discussed on how the roles of Residential Advisors may or may not change. The question was asked, “with living learning communities at other colleges and universities, do their R.A.’s have additional jobs or expectations they must fulfill?”

“The job of the R.A. does not change. If anything, their role just becomes more intentional. Meaning, they have to take matters more seriously than they are expected to. They now have to work with faculty advisors in addition to other staff they normally would to make sure the students safe and follow the rules” said Melendez.

Thus, the role of an R.A. wouldn’t drastically change when bring a new housing program to Whittier College, especially when the residential life department counts on these individuals to watch over the students and help with their problems when they’re not around.

When interviewing Joel Perez and Josh Hartman, the last question to each was “if you were a Whittier College student and you had to pick a theme for a residence hall, what would you pick?”

Hartman responded with a slight laugh, “See I’m not even a Whittier student so I wouldn’t even know what to say. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. If it were me personally, I would want an outdoor thing. I feel like we’re in the middle of a city and I would like to be able to provide resources to me to go hiking or maybe the beach or go kayaking out on the ocean somewhere.”

Perez replied with a similar expression, light laugh, “I think for me, I don’t know if I can be unbiased, anything that’s going to help me be successful as a student especially as a first generation college student. Maybe something that has to do with entrepreneurship and innovation. I want students to be able to be able to develop apps or small businesses something along the lines that they can tap into the Whittier Scholars program. Students would have an incentive to live together and think about ideas and concept that are above the average college student.”

Ultimately, living learning communities are an integrative way to help make the housing experience at Whittier College more exciting. Students already complain about the housing program and this is a way to change their ideas about it but more importantly to enhance the learning outcomes as a student at the college. It is also a way to increase first year retention, but as Perez had said “it is not the silver bullet. We have other plans we are working with. However we do hope that living learning communities do help. Eventually, it will be available for all students but for now it’s merely for first years.”