Two more assistant deans of the residential commons joined Rensselaer in November—Mary Gleason and Christina Lowery.
Gleason will reside in the Polytech Commons and Lowery will reside in Hall Hall. All of the assistant deans of the residential commons, along with the class deans, are expected to be in place by next fall and will work in conjunction with two faculty deans of residential commons. Plans are under way to conduct an internal search for the two faculty deans, who will be responsible for the overall leadership in stimulating the intellectual, cultural, and social life of students in the commons. The positions will be held by tenured faculty who will live near the residential commons in university-owned homes, encouraging increased opportunities for faculty-and-student interaction outside the classroom.
“Overall, the objective of this new model is to integrate academic and student life initiatives in support of student academic success, while enhancing mentoring, community building, and experiential opportunities for student growth and development,” says Lisa Trahan. Trahan, former dean of the First-Year Experience, has been appointed to the newly created position of assistant vice president for the student experience.
Safety Net for the Sophomore Year. One of the first goals of the CLASS initiative is to address the need to provide ongoing support for second-year students as they continue to acclimate to college life. Although the Institute’s freshmen-to-sophomore retention rates are remarkable, the goal is to reach 98 percent.
National studies show that students are least satisfied with college during their sophomore year and, as a result, they are most likely to drop out of school. A report released earlier this year by ACT (the nonprofit education research group formerly known as American College Testing) has found that the proportion of first-year students who returned to the same college as sophomores in 2007-08 dropped to the lowest level in 25 years, to 65.7 percent.
“Second-year students are still adjusting to their new identity as adults during a period of academic, social, and personal development and may feel at a loss without the attention and support they received as freshmen. At the same time, they are expected to know more and do more,” Trahan says. “Combine this with the push to declare a major, find an internship, and decide on a study-abroad experience—second-year students experience what is referred to as the ‘sophomore slump.’ ”
To help sophomores continue to make the necessary adjustments to college, the university will implement the Sophomore Year Experience initiative next fall. Under the plan, second-year students will have a choice of either living on the Troy campus or in fraternities and sororities that have signed on to partner with the Institute through a commons agreement in the CLASS initiative. Sophomores will still be able to pledge to a Greek life house that has not signed the Greek Life Commons Agreement, but students will not be able to live in the house until their junior year. Active Greek participation in CLASS under the agreement includes providing educational and extracurricular program opportunities to ensure that students remain connected to campus.
Dean of Students Mark Smith, who has worked with the Greek life community for more than 10 years, says that CLASS holds a number of opportunities for Greeks.
“The Greek system will still retain its identity through CLASS,” Smith says. “The intent is to broaden the reach of Greeks, providing them with a better pipeline into campus activities across the board and enhancing their sustainability as an important part of the undergraduate experience.”
A Theme Runs Through It. As part of implementing CLASS, Rensselaer also will highlight and enhance the smaller, theme-based living and learning environments that already exist in schools and residence halls across campus. Theme houses launched over the past several years include CAVE (Community Action through Volunteer Engagement). Students who live in Davison Hall adopt long-term service projects that lead to positive change in the community. There also are theme houses for students interested in science fiction, leadership, entrepreneurship, the arts, and wellness.
Zane Van Dusen ’07, who earned a double major in computer science and EMAC (electronic media, arts, and communication), still revels in his experience of living in Ground Zero, a theme house based on music and culture in Nugent Hall, where organized concerts and other events are staged in the lower level.
“We created a large community of musicians and artists who all could hang out in the venue most weekends and try out different projects,” says Van Dusen, who lived there during his sophomore and junior years. “I really can’t stress enough how much I loved and needed Ground Zero. It was the highlight of my college experience.”
To expand on the theme house concept and add a strong academic component, Student Life collaborated with the Office of Undergraduate Education to establish Vasudha. The first-year living and learning community, now in its third year, focuses on the Earth, energy, and the environment.
“Vasudha offers students the opportunity to build strong friendships and develop a deeper knowledge in a specific area of study,” says Prabhat Hajela, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “Students also work closely with their instructors, who organize extracurricular programs and activities that might include a field trip to the Darrin Fresh Water Institute or a lecture series on such topics as global warming and climate change.”
Hajela is developing a similar community living and learning program related to arts and media that will draw support from the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, which officially opened last year.
“The student life experience is a vital part of the undergraduate education, and the Office of Undergraduate Education will be working closely with faculty members involved in the CLASS initiative on many fronts to help bring intellectual content into residential life,” he says. “This includes developing both curricular and co-curricular content emphasizing student advising and support.”
Such a collaborative effort is the high point of CLASS, Knowles says. “CLASS is really an across-the-campus partnership focused on student development that includes nurturing excellence, building community, and a commitment to student success,” he says.
It’s a theme on which Rensselaer keeps building.