History of the Learning Communities at SU
The concept of Learning Communities is not a “new” idea. It’s been around since the 1920s and grew in popularity throughout the U.S. in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Syracuse University has a longer history of learning communities than you may realize.
In the fall of 1965, an experimental program called “Faculty Fellows of Dellplain 7 & 8” was started as a way to encourage connections between faculty and students. The program organized informal meals in Shaw dining hall for faculty and students to eat and engage in conversations. Faculty members from zoology, sociology, anthropology, mathematics, romance languages, fine arts, philosophy, and history participated in the program with the upper-class students living on Dellplain’s 7th and 8th floors. Although not classified as a learning community, this program was a precursor of future learning community programs at SU as it recognized the importance of faculty connections with a group of students living together. It also allowed the university to gauge interest level in and potential success of this type of program.
Then, in the spring of 1970, students and faculty within the Maxwell School proposed changes to Shaw residence hall that would encourage a more intellectual atmosphere by integrating students and faculty within the building. The proposed changes included making the dining hall available to Maxwell faculty to encourage faculty-student interactions, having graduate students and faculty live in and have offices within the building, and converting the floor lounges into seminar rooms for classes and discussions. They hoped, too, that Maxwell students living together would form a common bond around their academic interest within the Maxwell School. These changes, although unrealized, remained a strong influence on what was to come.
In 1975, the Office of Residence Life and The College of Arts and Sciences collaborated to make Shaw residence hall the “Living and Learning Center.” This center was much like what the Maxwell School had envisioned 5 years previously. In the center’s first year, Fine Arts professor Tim Verdon and 6 teaching assistants lived with the undergraduate students in Shaw hall. Several first-year classes and discussion sections were taught in the building and faculty were encouraged to eat and interact with the students in the dining hall. A student programming committee planned educational weekend trips, such as a trek on the Freedom Trail in Boston and attending a play in New York City, to expand the experience for students.
In the fall of 1977, the Center’s program was restructured and the building was divided into 9 units, with each unit having a concentration or theme. These themes were used by the students, RAs, and faculty members as a guide for activity development. Some of the themes were great literature, society and social change, sports, music and media, human potential, and modern society. The program relied on students to take the lead and guide what the year would look like while the faculty served in an advisory capacity.
After a short hiatus, the learning community program had yet another academically-oriented transformation in 1989. This time, there were special floors designated within Shaw residence hall for upper-class and first-year students to live together based on their school or college. There were floors for Architecture, Engineering, Visual and Performing Arts, and Newhouse students to live together and learn from each other. Televisions were removed from the lounges in an effort to support a learning environment and quiet hours were strictly enforced by the RAs. Students who chose to live there loved its academic theme.
Theme housing (a cousin to learning communities) has also had an important role in shaping the direction of learning communities at Syracuse University. In 1995, the Chemical Health Education Encouraging Responsible Students (CHEERS) floor, which had been around for a few years and focused on helping students live lives free of alcohol and drugs, was restructured to focus more broadly on all aspects of healthy living including nutrition, spiritual well-being, meditation, and exercise. Student enrollment doubled; in 1997, it was renamed the Wellness floor. Then in 1999, a rift occurred between the students on the Wellness floor, and two different communities were created as a result. The Wellness floor continued to focus on helping students live an overall healthy lifestyle and eventually became the Wellness Learning Community, which still exists today. A new community was created, the Living In a Free Environment (LIFE) floor. The LIFE community returned to its roots and focused on providing an alcohol and drug free living environment for students – much like the CHEERS floor had done.
In the late 1990s faculty and staff at Syracuse University were examining ways to make a positive impact on student learning and satisfaction, and to create a Syracuse University “Signature Experience” (Cavanagh, et al., 1999). The most recent iteration of the Learning Community Program at SU has grown steadily since it began in 1998 with a small pilot project conducted by the Whitman School of Management, the Honors Program, and the Office of Residence Life. This pilot involved forty-three students placed in two residential learning communities (Management and Honors).
In 2000, the Syracuse University LC program partnered with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY – ESF) to create the SUNY-ESF Learning Community, which eventually became a mandatory year-long learning community experience for all incoming first-year ESF students. This marked Syracuse University’s first learning community in partnership with another institution of higher education.
The Office of Learning Communities (as a formal entity) was created in July 2003 to serve as the administrative home for and to support the growing learning community program at Syracuse University. The Office is a joint Student Affairs-Academic Affairs collaboration, and as such reports through two distinct areas, the Office of the Associate Provost (Academic Affairs) and the Office of Residence Life (Student Affairs).
Then in 2008, the learning community program at SU reached another important milestone by obtaining our very first endowed learning community, the Barbara Glazer Weinstein and Jerome S. Glazer Learning Community for Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. This generous endowment from Kim Glazer Goldberg who named the learning community in memory of her parents, Barbara and Jerome, significantly enriches the experience of the students in the learning community.
Currently the Office of Learning Communities sponsors over 25 different learning communities serving approximately 1000 Syracuse University students. The success of the learning community program is due in large part to the over 135 individual faculty, staff, and administrators who are directly involved in our learning communities. Some of our campus-wide collaborations include Admissions; Air Force ROTC; Army ROTC; the Career Center; Faculty and student support staff in each school and college; First Year and Transfer Programs; Housing; Institutional Research and Assessment; LGBT Resource Center; Multicultural Affairs; Recreation Services; Registrar; Renée Crown University Honors Program; Residence Life; and Slutzker Center for International Services.