Virginia Tech’s living-learning communities help students discover their niche, find friends, and integrate their academic and social lives. Communities are created around academic majors, enhanced-learning, the residential college concept, and themed housing.
“Students choose living-learning communities because these environments make the university smaller,” said James Penven, associate director of residence life. “Because there are increased faculty contact and upperclassmen mentors, they allow students to easily find a connection and ‘home’ at Virginia Tech.”
More than 1,000 students each year take advantage of the enhanced learning, stronger personal development, and lasting friendships by joining one the communities.
In fall 2012, a new community called Thrive will join the mix to bring together first-year students from all academic disciplines in an environment that encourages them to develop their strengths. “This new living-learning community is the first multidisciplinary program we’ve created especially for freshmen,” said Frank Shushok, associate vice president for student affairs. “It is grounded in intellectual curiosity and will be made up of students who share the motivation to explore and learn, regardless of their specific majors.”
Thrive will combine course curriculum, group projects, social activities, and other resources to reinforce intellectual pursuit and personal growth. It also will use StrengthsQuest, an assessment instrument that evaluates an individual’s top five talents out of 34 traits.
Thrive will challenge students to reframe how they construct their college and life experiences. Instead of trying to fix their weaknesses, students are will identify their strengths and be encouraged to apply their talents in meaningful ways.
“A positive psychology approach recognizes the good and builds on that which can increase self-confidence, strengthen a student’s self-concept through reflection and experience, and highlight proactive ways that students learn to engage the world around them from a positive lens,” said Eleanor Finger, director of housing and residence life.
A strong sense of community distinguishes the living-learning experience, said Patrick Goley of Gaithersburg, Md., a junior majoring in electrical engineering in the College of Engineering and a member of the Honors Residential College living-learning community. During the 2011-12 academic year, he was elected its first co-president.
“I always thought it [community] was something that just happened automatically whenever the right conditions were present,” he said. “I was wrong. It takes work and doesn’t happen automatically, even in the best conditions. You must be absolutely intentional about building community.”
Like the Honors Residential College, Thrive is aligned with Virginia Tech’s five Aspirations for Student Learning. “We are looking at more intentional ways to engage residents earlier with their strengths, as both a leadership tool and vehicle to help them deepen their experience and learning in the areas of the five aspirations,” Finger said.
The five Aspirations for Student Learning are committing to unwavering curiosity, pursuing self-understanding and integrity, practicing civility, preparing for a life of courageous leadership, and embracing the values of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
First-year students must apply to live in the Thrive community. It will have space for about 280 students in Pritchard Hall, which houses 1,016 students.
“The sheer size of Pritchard poses challenges to a student’s sense of belonging and community engagement,” said Matthew Grimes, assistant director of residence life. “Thrive provides a smaller space within which to explore self and interact with others in an inclusive community that stimulates first-year students intellectually, fosters personal growth and development, and engages them in the university environment.”
Living-learning communities can positively shape the first-year experience, said Elizabeth Machesney of Fairfax, Va., a freshman majoring in human development and Spanish in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. As a member of the SERVE (Students Engaging and Responding through Volunteer Experiences) living-learning community, she works on community service projects throughout the year and takes courses with other SERVE students.
She said SERVE has helped her find her place at Virginia Tech and gave her a deeper understanding of her own capabilities. “For starters, I have 20 great friends who I know have at least somewhat similar values as me,” she said. “I have a means of becoming involved in the Virginia Tech community through service work and the requirement to have an individual service project. More importantly, the class requires that we do a lot of reflection on our experiences and that reflection always leads to significant insight that really benefits me as a person.” Next year, Machesney will be a SERVE community advisor, facilitating group discussions and projects.
There are four types of living-learning communities at Virginia Tech:
Another living-learning experience in Pritchard Hall started in 2011 to help students connect with others who have common interests and strengths.
“In the fall semester, 54 percent of Pritchard residents completed the StrengthsFinder assessment,” said Jeananne Tiffany, residential learning coordinator for Pritchard Hall. It “gave residents an opportunity to explore what their top five talent themes or strengths meant to them and in what ways they could utilize them.”
Pritchard residents participated in numerous activities throughout the academic year to help them find, develop, and use their strengths.
Look through previous Spotlight stories