The University of Tulsa welcomed students to its redesigned living-learning communities (LLCs) in fall 2020. Growing in popularity at universities and colleges across the country, LLCs are a type of residence hall neighborhood that brings together students who share similar academic and/or personal interests and, thereby, help to foster engagement and belonging.
“These common-interest living communities offer residents exclusive learning opportunities with faculty and staff around shared passions,” explained Scott Gove, TU’s associate director of residence life. “The students who choose to live in one of our LLCs have ready access to events, programming and dedicated leaders. LLCs help them establish friendships and apply what they learn in class to everyday life.”
Homes sweet homes
TU currently offers four LLCs:
- First Year Residential Experience (FYRE): promotes a smooth transition to college by helping first-year students navigate their newly found independence
- Sophomore Housing Experience (SOHO): focuses on service-learning engagement in the community, networking opportunities, leadership development and civic engagement with the City of Tulsa government
- University Honors: a home for students in the Honors Program where they can cultivate the life of the mind and deep friendships
- Gender & Sexuality Inclusivity: for upper-class students who want to explore topics around gender identity and sexual orientation continuums in the apartment community.
In 2021-22, the university plans to expand the University Honors LLC into campus apartments and have students from the 2020-21 cohort serve as mentors for the new incoming group. A fifth LLC will also be added to the roster: Esports & Gaming will be a home for students interested in gaming, either as a member of university-sponsored Esports teams or as a recreational gamer.
From the classroom to the living room
After having worked as a resident assistant (RA) during his sophomore and junior years, Jacob Welsh was keen to serve as the RA during his senior year with the University Honors LLC. “My main roles are to ensure safety, provide academic and personal support/resources, create a social and inviting community, and cater to the interests of those in the community,” Welsh observed. “But in an LLC, the scope of each of these roles can be narrowed and capitalized on to provide the best experience for residents.”
For Denise Dutton, the University Honors LLC faculty advisor, one of the great benefits of LLCs is that they bring together students from a variety of disciplines. For University Honors residents, “that makes it a space where everybody gets to practice both sharing their expertise and also thinking as a curious and informed non-expert.”
In fact, Dutton sees a profound connection between this living arrangement and students’ academic explorations: “I just can’t imagine a better way to complement the Honors curriculum’s study of human culture and individual liberty than by living in this interdependent community where our day-to-day choices are illuminated by our shared study of the moral, political and scientific arguments that have shaped our society.” For Dutton, the “deeper lesson” that her LLC fosters is that “each of us has the power and the responsibility to choose what to think about, and how to think about it well. That lesson, after all, is at the heart of a transformative liberal arts education.”
Getting involved and making connections
Welsh agrees that LLCs are uniquely able to unite people who share common interests, and he notes the power of LLCs to create events that cater to those investments. That is not to say, however, that LLCs demand the same level of involvement from all residents: “each person can explore their interests however and at the level of engagement they are comfortable with,” Welsh said. “Residence Life staff do not force any student to participate in events if they wouldn’t like to. But by encouraging involvement, residents can realize their fit in a community that satisfies their interests and personal connections.”
For those who do choose to participate in, for example, programs that bring students and professors together, the dividend, said Dutton, can be a “deepening of students’ meaningful relationships with faculty mentors, which, research suggests, is the most important contributor to learning in college.” For University Honors residents, such opportunities have included invited faculty lectures, informal dinner-and-movie nights, faculty-vs-student soccer matches and local outings to, for instance, attend the Tulsa Opera or stargaze at Gilcrease.
Conversation, laughter and friendship
Computer science major Grace Havrilka is someone who has found both a community and a way to develop her interests through involvement in an LLC. Havrilka’s primary motivation for applying to live in TU’s Gender & Sexuality Inclusivity LLC was the desire for the unique experience of being surrounded by people who share a similar worldview and/or who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Thus far, Havrilka could not be more pleased by her choice. For one thing, “living in this LLC lends itself to way more discussions than most other spaces do,” she noted. For example, prior to the winter break, members watched the lesbian-themed holiday film Happiest Season over Zoom and then had a rich discussion of sexuality in both the film and media at large. Residing in TU’s Gender & Sexuality Inclusivity LLC has also opened new opportunities for Havrilka. Recently, for example, she was a part of a panel to discuss how to ensure that the roommate finder survey is as inclusive as possible and worded in such a way as to optimize responses.
Havrilka’s comments are borne out by Welsh’s experience on the RA side: “Although all events this year have either been virtual or socially distanced, engagement opportunities are the best way to provide residents with both tangible and intangible resources, all while allowing conversations, laughter and friendships to grow and thrive.” Welsh also spends a good deal of energy finding out about his LLC members’ personal interests, knowledge that empowers him to plan events that resonate and meet their needs.
LLCs are designed to bring people together; however, figuring out how to meet safely and which activities are viable during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a big challenge. Yet, technology and the desire to connect have enabled community members to grow their bonds.
“All our meetings have to be virtual,” Havrilka explained, “but we have a Microsoft Teams chat available to us and staff willing to answer questions. New groups are also forming, such as a Gender Identity group, for people to discuss and explore their gender identity while meeting other people who share it.”
Virtual events, such as Zoom book clubs and works-in-progress forums have been beneficial, remarked Dutton, “but we are eager once it is safe to return to breaking bread together so as to deepen our connections to one another.”
LLCs “enable you to meet new people, have interesting discussions and find new opportunities,” said Grace Harvilka, a resident in the Gender & Sexuality Inclusivity LLC. “I would definitely recommend this experience to any students who are interested!” If you are curious about joining this community or one of TU’s other dynamic LLCs, get in touch with the Office of Housing & Dining, which operates in partnership with Residence Life’s LLC curriculum.