Living-Learning Communities to turn 25

three students studying
Chemistry study group in Gaillardia Hall

Living-Learning Communities to turn 25

By Steve Ulfelder

A pioneering residential program continues to thrive

Reading Anna Karenina out loud as a group. An impromptu seminar on balancing your checkbook. Chili cookoffs. Entertaining your professor’s dogs, not to mention their young children. 

These are all possibilities for first-year students who choose to live in one of 14 Texas State University residential colleges and living-learning communities (LLC). Each year, groups of students live together based on a common academic interest or theme, usually taking at least one course together and participating in outside-the-classroom experiences led by faculty members and staff. This year, the LLCs observe a pair of milestones. First, the pioneering program turns 25. Additionally, one of the LLCs moves up a notch to become a residential college; this fall, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) group has expanded in size and gained a faculty in residence. 

Launched in 1995, Texas State’s first LLC, the Residential College, was spearheaded by Dr. Gene Bourgeois, now provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, who was inspired by his studies at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain. From these beginnings, the program now offers 14 options. As one of relatively few programs of its type in the nation — Harvard, Rice, and the University of Southern California offer noteworthy LLCs — it is closely studied.

Informal moments

One important goal in the LLCs “is for the faculty in residence to get to know students outside the classroom,” says Dr. Ted Ingwersen, assistant director, Residential Life and Education. Study sessions, dining hall meals, and smallgroup dinners all help — but so do the less-structured, lighter moments, such as bumping into a toddler in the hallway or playing fetch with Dr. Kristen Farris’s dog. 

Now in her third year in Brogdon and Beretta Hall’s Residential College, Farris — an assistant professor and basic course director for the Fundamentals of Human Communication course — initially was concerned about how her husband, Marc, would handle things. She needn’t have worried. “The students are so respectful and kind,” she says. “They’re really great about interacting. I’ve never had to set boundaries — the students have done that themselves.” Last semester, Marc, who has a master’s in business administration, put together an informal event on personal financial management. 

Such informal interaction with faculty can be a godsend for new students. “You need to let the kids see faculty as people, too,” says Ingwersen, who’s been involved with the LLCs since his 1998 arrival at Texas State. “This is an additional person a student can come to.” 

Dr. Jeffrey Helgeson, a history professor, agrees. “When freshmen come in, there’s this complete break” with their previous lives, he notes. Faculty in residence serve as “a reminder that there remain, after all, families in the world.” When Helgeson served as faculty in residence from 2010 through 2015, his wife and three children, who at the outset ranged in age from 3 months to 5 years, were part of the package — and a welcome part. “My kids really broke down the distance,” he says, thanks in part to regular family dinners with students, occasional cupcake nights, and other nonacademic events. 

While LLCs encourage freshmen to live with peers who share academic interests and goals, Dr. Rosanne Proite, director of the Department of Housing and Residential Life, notes there is no lack of diversity in the communities. “These students come from such a wide variety of hometowns, of high schools, of families,” she says. “Part of the program’s appeal is this baked-in diversity.” 

Paying it forward

Dr. Louie Dean Valencia-García, who began this fall as faculty in residence at Laurel Honors House, earned his bachelor’s degree in 2007 at Texas State. He was an Honors College student at a time when there was no faculty in residence there, and in a way, he says, he “spent the last 10 years thinking about how to tie it together a little bit better.” To that end, Valencia-García says, “The main thing I focus on is helping students better prepare for graduation in Honors College. Students don’t always get what that entails [five Honors classes, including their Honors Thesis]. I help them start thinking from day one about, for example, working with faculty. If you have students doing outreach earlier, it eases the way later.” 

No program thrives without evolving, and the LLCs never rest on their laurels. For example, there was once an LLC for geography majors, but Proite explains that factors conspired against it. “Students who major in geography tend to fall in love with it through other routes,” she says. In other words, relatively few first-year students land on campus as committed geography majors. For a time, Texas State filled that gap by allowing sophomores in the LLC, but the university’s growth made it impossible to house sophomores on campus. As a result, the geography LLC was phased out. 

Evolution is a two-way street. Some of the newer LLCs, housed in Retama Hall, include 45 sound recording technology, acting, and musical theatre majors. The latter’s academic program has exploded in popularity, Proite says, with 15 freshmen accepted each year out of more than 750 applicants. 

The STEM freshmen will have the opportunity to take Ojeda-Ruiz’s Calculus 1 course — and that’s not all they’ll learn from him. “I want to share my passion for science … the fact that it’s not a solo act, you have to share, it’s the very nature of the scientific method. I want to help STEM students meet people from other sciences, so they can start building a community as soon as they hit Texas State.” 

Building community. Sharing one’s passion. Working closely with others. These are hallmarks of Texas State’s LLCs, which just turned 25 and are not slowing down one bit. “You get a chance to really create a community with the students,” Helgeson says. “You get to make a big university feel a lot smaller.” 

On the shoulders of giants: Origins of the LLCs at Texas State

Texas State’s residential college and living-learning communities (LLCs) trace their roots to the 13th century.

No, really.

Dr. Gene Bourgeois, now provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, earned his doctorate at the University of Cambridge, whose residential colleges date to 1284. A historian, Bourgeois couldn’t help but study the arrangement. “I saw the benefits of closer relationships among students and between students and professors, for the latter group especially those that were informal and allowed students to see faculty as real people outside the classroom and laboratory,” he recalls. “The immersion, the opportunity for scholars to interact – these impact points were priceless.”

Closer to home, Bourgeois’ father had attended Louisiana State University when all of that school’s male freshmen were enrolled in the ROTC program — and lived beneath the same roof and dined together, too. “From questions he asked about my own undergraduate years, I could tell he’d enjoyed a lot more bonding with his classmates, a truly different experience.” Two of his siblings were part of cohort-based academic programs that reflected the benefits of groups of students taking classes together.

These seeds sprouted in the next decade, when Bourgeois was an assistant history professor at Texas State. Then-President Jerome Supple issued a retention incentive grant with the goal of bringing back more students following their freshman year. In 1993, Bourgeois spearheaded a group that came up with a proposal.

An ambitious proposal, at that. “Extremely ambitious,” says Dr. Joanne H. Smith, now vice president for Student Affairs. “They wanted to build new residential halls in the middle of campus. I was director of Residential Life at the time, and I hadn’t heard anything about it until I got this call [from Supple]. I went and visited [Bourgeois] and said, ‘It would have been nice if you’d talked to me before.’ ”

Smith laughs at the recollection, adding, “We all thought it was an excellent idea. We took off with it and asked ourselves how, from a feasibilitystandpoint, we could make this work.” The two rolled up their sleeves, dividing the labor as they worked with faculty, staff, and facilities to hone the proposal.

In the fall of 1995, the first residential college opened its doors. It was an immediate success, Bourgeois notes. In more recent years, the retention rate of students who participated in LLCs averaged 80% to 85%, compared with a general rate of 76% to 78%.

— Steve Ulfelder