For USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett, the value of the university’s residential colleges isn’t a theory: It’s a firsthand experience.
As the special guest at a faculty master dinner, Garrett was speaking with a group of students when the conversation veered into politics.
Over dessert, a student told Garrett that her talk showed him that people can disagree about politics and still have a civilized, productive discussion — without yelling at each other like they do on TV.
“That’s what a university is supposed to be about,” said Garrett, senior vice president for academic affairs. “It would be a really great thing if all our students left their experience in the residential colleges with an even greater appreciation for the life of the mind and for the value of intellectual discourse, and for the ability to recognize and appreciate differences while working toward common ground.”
She added, “And it was good dessert, too.”
This valuable blend of living and learning now defines the USC freshman experience. As of this fall, all USC freshmen are being housed in residential colleges, where they benefit from the strong involvement of resident faculty.
“Hands down, research shows that students who live on campus have higher GPAs and tend to be retained more if they’ve built a connection with faculty,” said Romando Nash, associate dean and executive director of Residential Education, part of the Division of Student Affairs.
Freshman critical studies major Burt Chaikin has already connected with Oliver Mayer, associate professor of dramatic arts and faculty master at the International Residential College at Parkside. After the two met at a faculty master dinner, Mayer agreed to serve as an adviser to Chaikin, who hopes to start a new theater troupe at USC.
“Those things won’t happen unless you have connections with the faculty,” Chaikin said. “It’s been another one of those USC opportunities — there are so many of them — and it’s up to you whether or not you’re going to take advantage of them.”
Phil Ethington, history and political science professor and faculty master at New Residential College, sees the value in encouraging freshmen to get used to talking to professors in informal settings. By living alongside faculty, these students are more likely to attend office hours and approach their professors when it really counts, he said.
“One of the nice things about the situation here is that I can be Phil,” he said. “I’m playing volleyball out there with my daughters. I don’t have a big hang-up about having to maintain my privacy in front of my students.”
In addition to creating familiarity with faculty members, the residential colleges create a sense of community and home.
“When I am around and hanging out in the living room, I like to have the door open and be available for students to talk and interact,” said Myka Winder, assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy and resident faculty at South Area Residential College. “I have a few students who like to use our kitchen to bake special treats or birthday cookies or cake. It’s fun, and my husband likes to make friends on the floor — people to play foosball with.”
The faculty members’ pets also make friends with the freshmen.
“We had a fire alarm the other night, and I was out with my dogs,” said Ellen Seiter, professor of cinematic arts and faculty master of South Area Residential College. “This student actually came up to me and said, ‘You know, I miss my dog more than I miss my parents.’ So it’s just that little bit of home.”
The resident faculty also organize structured programming, which ranges from weekly faculty master dinners to field trips to pumpkin-carving parties.
“It’s really cool getting that professor relationship without being in the classroom,” said senior Jenny Ham, a public relations and psychology major and resident assistant in Marks Tower. “And it’s weird that they’re actually people with real interests, similar interests to us!”
Ham pointed out something that elite universities in Great Britain and the United States have recognized for centuries: that learning takes place in dining halls as well as lecture halls.
Based on British and Ivy League models, USC’s first residential college opened in 1987. The university now has 22 resident faculty living in eight locations: Arts & Humanities Residential College at Parkside; Fluor Tower Residential College; International Residential College at Parkside; New Residential College; North Residential College; South Area Residential College (comprising Marks Hall, Marks Tower, Pardee Tower and Trojan Hall); University Residential College at Birnkrant; and Webb Tower Residential College.
Further contributing to the residential college experience, new facilities include five faculty apartments, programming spaces near EVK Restaurant and Grill and Café 84, and a Starbucks at Trojan Grounds in University Residential College at Birnkrant. USC also renovated Ground Zero Performance Café; the residence hall camera security systems; and several laundry rooms, bathrooms, student lounges and study rooms.
“It’s great for USC because we strongly believe that residential universities are still very important and very viable, even with all of this technology,” said Michael L. Jackson, vice president for Student Affairs. “You still need places in our society to bring young people together, to educate them, to help them get to know each other, and to help them get to know people from different backgrounds, different states and different countries.”