Learning Communities Pay Multiple Dividends

Year After Debut, Residence Hall Groups Get High Marks from Students, Staff

When the University Village residence hall opened in fall 2009, the 148,000-square-foot building offered more than just private bedrooms and ping-pong tables:  It allowed a space for like-minded collegians to congregate under one roof and study, volunteer and have fun together.

Students participating in Living Learning Communities live in the Residence Hall, share common academic goals and volunteer for service projects together.

These new Living Learning Communities—in which small groups of select freshmen who live in the hall and share common academic goals or interests— turned out to benefit students in other ways, too.  That’s because retention rates from freshman to sophomore year for students participating in the communities was 95.5 percent, compared with retention for the rest of the freshman class, which was approximately 83 percent.

“It’s very strong data indicating that academic and social opportunities, along with a strong sense of community offered by the Living Learning program, has a positive impact on students and contributes to their connection to UT Dallas,” said Dr. Cynthia Jenkins, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and who oversees the initiative.

Students in LLCs study together, participate in service projects and social events, and interact closely with faculty.  Currently, there are more than 150 community members spread across five academic disciplines:  Arts & Technology (ATEC), Engineering and Computer Science, Management, Music and Pre-Health.

  • The ATEC community helps aspiring animators, gamers and sound designers develop their technical skills and artistic talents.  Members have met with industry experts and representatives from Dreamworks and the Janimation studio in Dallas.
  • The Management LLC has met with the school’s dean, Dr. Hasan Pirkul, and other faculty, including one activity where students created three course meals in the hall’s common kitchen, which were judged by the dean.
  • The Music community offers a venue for students who share a common interest in music performance and appreciation.  Among other activities, members attend concerts and have been granted backstage access to ask questions about rehearsals, casting, costumes and other aspects of performance.
  • The Pre-Health community brings together students pursuing careers in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry and related professions.  Members have attended conferences to learn about the medical school application process and learned first-hand about the realities of the healthcare industry.

    Members of the Engineering and Computer Science community have taken part in competitions and volunteered at a robotics competition for middle school-aged children.

UT Dallas senior Hayley Tiefenthaler, an LLC adviser, pointed out that there is a growing interest in sophomore Living Learning Communities, such as ATEC’s SLATE program (Sophomore Living Learning Arts & Technology Experience) and Pre-Health’s SPARC program (Sophomore Pre-Health Academic Residential Community), which have been formed to maintain the relationships forged during freshman year.

“LLC students have found their niche in a college environment, a place with great friends who share common interests.  It’s a close-knit community where we know and care for one another,” Tiefenthaler said.

LLC members are not limited exclusively to events within their communities, according to Mary Jane Suarez Partain, assistant director for student life programs.

“Last semester, nine students from several different communities went to Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, for an Alternative Spring Break trip,” Partain said.  “Students had a three-day immersion experience on the ranch and learned about third-world situations, including living in impoverished areas, manual labor and hunger.

Overall, the living learning model has been a great experience for our students, and I look forward to continued growth and community expansion within the program.”