Faculty principals reflect on their first-year experiences

Heather Gumbert and Rob Stephens aren’t your typical residence hall tenants.

For starters, they brought their dog, Liam, to live with them in East Ambler Johnston Hall — with the university’s blessing.

Second, they are not students.

   

Heather Gumbert and Rob Stephens say the first year of being the faculty principals for the Honors Residential College in East Ambler Johnston Hall was a bigger challenge than they expected. Heather Gumbert and Rob Stephens say the first year of being the faculty principals for the Honors Residential College in East Ambler Johnston Hall was a bigger challenge than they expected.

Gumbert and Stephens, both faculty members in the Department of History, are founding faculty principals for the Honors Residential College at East Ambler Johnston and live in an apartment in the residence hall. The faculty principals oversee the very busy life of the multidisciplinary college. They foster meaningful and sustained relationships among faculty, staff, and students and promote a rich intellectual, cultural, and social context.

During summer 2012, they took time to reflect on the Honors Residential College experience, assess their successes and challenges, and plan for the coming year.

   

Heather Gumbert and Rob Stephens brought their dog, Liam, to East Ambler Johnston Hall. Heather Gumbert and Rob Stephens brought their dog, Liam, to East Ambler Johnston Hall. Photo courtesy of Khang Duy Nguyen, a senior from Richmond, Va., majoring in business management.

“We worked harder than we expected to, but we also accomplished more than we thought we would,” Gumbert said. “And because we took on this role, people look at us differently — as people who are invested in their students and who are approachable. Doing this has made me rethink what I do in the classroom. Residential colleges give faculty a reason to cross the Drillfield.”

“It was an intense year,” Stephens said. “We’re not just faculty principals, we are members of this community and it has made our lives richer. Our goal is to open doors and encourage people to walk through them. We want students to get a sense early in their college careers of the opportunities that exist and that they have an environment that supports their endeavors.”

The residential college initiative at Virginia Tech gives student a chance to extend their education beyond the classroom through an intentional community that encourages them to take ownership of their experience.

“The residential college model gives students the best of both worlds: a large research university with world-class faculty and the type of learning communities you find in a small, liberal arts setting.” said Caleb Keith, student life coordinator for the Honors Residential College. “We put the systems in place to let the students dream big.”

“We wanted to create a ‘culture of yes’ in which students could participate in shaping their learning environment,” Gumbert said. “At first, students were fighting against a box that wasn’t there. It took them some time to get used to the idea that we were their allies, helping them to connect the dots to opportunities.”

By all accounts, the first year of the first residential college at Virginia Tech was a success. Qualitative measures and anecdotal observations support the assertion that the 320 students in the Honors Residential College in East Ambler Johnston had an extraordinary experience during the 2011-12 academic year:

  • GPAs for the residents were among the highest on campus
  • Retention was up
  • Number of returning residents is high
  • Participation in events was very strong
  • Student conduct referrals were low
  • Physical damage to the facility was low
  • Interaction with faculty increased
  • More productive use of downtime
  • More academic support from peers

“All aspirations we had were met and exceeded,” said James Penven, associate director of residence life, who is coordinating further assessment of the initiative. “This is what we hoped for. Much of it hinged on the role of the live-in faculty principals and their willingness to share their lives.”

   

Benjamin Sax, assistant professor of religion and culture and faculty principal for the new Residential College at West Ambler Johnston, leads a discussion with students. Benjamin Sax, assistant professor of religion and culture and faculty principal for the new Residential College at West Ambler Johnston, leads a discussion with students. Photo courtesy of Cameron Sumpter, a junior from Roanoke, Va., studying business information technology.

Penven said applications for the Residential College in West Ambler Johnston that opens in fall 2012 confirm that students are craving this kind of environment. “The classroom represents only one aspect of student learning. They want to actively engage in the community in a variety of ways and are prepared to invest themselves. We see a willingness ‘to know and be known.’ ”

Benjamin Sax is assistant professor of religion and culture and faculty principal for the Residential College in West Ambler Johnston. Sax and his family will follow Gumbert and Stephens and will live in their residence hall.

Jennifer Quijano Sax, assistant program director for Education Abroad in the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, is Senior Fellow in the residential college. The Sax have two children, ages 3 and 6, who will add a new layer of multigenerational interaction to the mix.

“Our kids bring out the inner camp counselor in students,” Sax said. “Even the purposefully ambivalent are wonderful. I think it will be good both for the students and our children.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Sandy Broughton at 540-231-3467.

About the residential colleges

Residential colleges build on successes

“There is a rhythm of the community that develops,” said Heather Gumbert, assistant professor in the Department of History. “It is one of the intangible pieces of evidence that indicates success. 

“We are seeing the intellectual life of the Honors Residential College extend throughout the year, with continuity of newly established practices and traditions. We see students keeping in touch with their mentors and ideas being generated for new projects. I am very optimistic about the coming year.”

Events that may prove to endure in coming years include the following:

  • Faculty teas with guest speakers Friday afternoons
  • Soup night Friday evenings
  • Dinners at D2 Tuesdays
  • Waffle Wednesdays
  • Senior fellows “Rebel Seminars” Thursdays
  • Film series and highbrow/lowbrow roulette
  • Head Start project in Giles County, Va.
  • Graduating seniors painting tiles on the sixth floor
  • Multigenerational interaction
  • Musical jam sessions
  • Running groups
  • Live-in dogs welcome

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