Learning communities specialize student experience

Janeal Downs 
Staff Writer

Living-learning communities and villages are just one more option VCU students have when researching their housing options.

VCU currently offers freshmen the opportunity to move into same-interest villages and offers upperclassmen the chance to move into dorms focused on true “living-learning” experiences.

“The residential village program is geared towards freshmen as more of an interest-based community than a true living learning community, and the distinction is really the curricular component of it,” said Dave Fleming, the assistant director for residence education at VCU.

Freshmen self-select into the residential village programs through their housing application when they list their three dormitory preferences. Fleming said the sooner they complete their application, the more likely they can get into the villages.

“I think the big thing is how to maximize the space that we have in our residence halls to further these programs so that we blend the goals of the programs with our space in a way that’s effective,” Fleming said.

The artist’s colony is one of four residential village programs the school offers for housing to incoming freshmen.

Music major and sophomore Ajee Heartsfield lived in the artist’s colony in Johnson Hall in the 2012-2013 academic school year. This residential village is meant to house incoming freshman within the art school.

“I definitely enjoyed the artist colony especially coming into college not knowing very many people. I thought it was great that you’re around people that are somewhat like you but so very different at the same time,” Heartsfield said.

“We would all hang out in the hallways and people would help each other with art projects. I thought it was a really good sense of camaraderie,” she said.

Heartsfield said she really enjoyed herself and would recommend for freshmen to live in the villages because they are a good way to meet people.

“It’s kind of hard to make friends if you’re in a big major and you don’t join a sorority or something but we all bonded with each other,” Heartsfield said.

The artist’s colony is the first three floors of Johnson Hall, which houses roughly 120 students. The other three villages include the doctor’s lounge for pre-med students, which has two floors in Brandt with room for 80 students, the clinical corner for health sciences and the board room for business students which each house 40 students in Brandt Hall as well.

Along with the freshman villages, VCU also has living-learning opportunities for upperclassmen. Currently there are two living learning communities that students can apply to: the Globe, which is tied to the Global Education Office, and ASPiRE, which is tied to community outreach.

“A lot of institutions are doing living-learning communities (and) villages, but the number and the breadth of departments and organizations that are involved in the conversations at VCU, I don’t know if that’s typical,” said Kevin Wade, the senior associate director of administrative services for residential life and housing.

“Having the provost’s office, the president’s office and the academic offices all interested and focused on it is something that as a VCU student is good to have.”

There are plans to add two new living-learning communities once construction on the two new dorms is completed. Wade said one of the new programs will focus on innovation and entrepreneurship in connection with the Da Vinci Program and engineering and the other is based on leadership which will be connected with the leadership program in Student Affairs.

Each building will hold roughly 200 people but it is undecided how much of the buildings will be open to people outside of the programs. Both West Grace North and South are not fully occupied by members of the Globe and ASPiRE, the two current living-learning communities.

One of the new buildings will face Broad and the other will face Grace Street. Like the West Grace buildings, these buildings will have classroom space for the members within each program.

“The greatest thing is that the more connected a student is with the community that they live in, the stronger the community in that hall is going to be, which makes VCU a stronger place and the more they’ll get out of it,” Wade said.

Mary Slade, the Executive Director of VCU ASPiRE said that as the first true living-learning community, ASPiRE focuses on what the community addresses as societal needs such as accessible and affordable housing, youth mentoring and quality K-12 education.

The first ASPiRE group will graduate this May from the program and the third group will move into the dorm this fall.

“I just think it’s a good way to experience campus life especially if you live off-campus,” Slade said. She added that students only get to experience their undergraduate experiences once, and should make the most of their time as a student.

Social work major and sophomore Lala Dozier and communication arts and junior Annette Allen will both graduate from ASPiRE this year.

During their time in the organization they participated in community service projects that included writing letters to receive grants for things such as a basketball court for children in Highland Park and a community garden within West Grace South.

“The wisdom that I’ve gained from being in the program, like how to administrate things and build connections with other people, or understanding Richmond better and just how cities function, was a pretty holistic experience. Honestly it went past service learning a lot,” Allen said.

Including Dozier, 24 of the graduating students will continue to help the incoming students and serve as mentors and leaders for them in the program.

“It’s a good opportunity to explore and it can also help your major as well. I’m a social work major and 100 hours of community service looks really great,” Dozier said. “It’s never a bad thing to get involved and join a living and learning community.”

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